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Scott's Column
DLSR Lens Package Selection, Computer Eco-System & the iMac

March 1, 2010
By Scott Lewis

Introductory paragraph goes here.

Current Topics:

DSLR Lens Package Selection

It has been two months since I dedicated this column to my DSLR Camera Buying Tips. This month I want to get past the choice of camera and show you my criteria for selecting the initial lenses to buy with your new digital SLR camera. As you will recall I said do not buy the camera in kit form. Get better lenses than the ones that come with the kit.

My goal here is to help you (and me) pick the first 2 lenses for your digital SLR camera. The first two lenses are the most important because at this price level we want these lenses to last a lifetime, and stay with you when (yes, when) you upgrade your camera body. Your first two lenses need to cover as many situations as possible... until you can afford more lenses. Your job is to determine what you want to use the lenses for.

Quick Review

Before we get into the lens selection process I want to tell you where I am toward making my camera choice. I have narrowed my selection to the Canon EOS Rebel T1i or the Nikon D90. The T1i on initial viewing seems to be easier to use with its single command wheel, and it is a little lighter to hold. However, that command wheel is by the index finger and not your thumb (where I think it should be). The D90 has two command wheels which I believe will make using the camera more difficult. However the extra weight of the D90 seems to make the camera feel sturdier and does not hinder it in my opinion. The D90 also has an LCD on top, which I like a lot. Next up is speed, one of the reasons to get a DSLR. The Canon T1i tops out at 3.4 fps (frames per second) in burst mode, while the Nikon D90 goes up to 4.5 fps. I already have one project in mind that will need speed like this, but I don't know if it will matter. 6-7 fps would matter, but that takes us to the really expensive cameras. The last major feature of the D90 I like is the on-board flash can be used to control remote flashes. Very cool. I would have to buy a "master" flash for the Canon, and add slaves later.

Then there is software. For the most part I don't care as I will use Photoshop with its Camera RAW component to work with images. However, Canon provides Remote Capture software with its cameras. This allows you to control the camera from your computer. I can think of some time lapse projects I might like to try with this. Also, I would be interested in seeing how this software would work in a portrait environment with the camera on a tripod. Full screen previews on the spot would be great in determining if you captured the perfect moment or want to try again because someone was looking in the wrong direction. Nikon charges extra for their Camera Control 2 software package (about $150 I think).

If this is not enough to bog me down, I heard rumors that Canon was going to release a new model... 60D, which would be an upgrade of the 50D to include video and a few other tricks. I knocked the 50D out of the running because it did not have video capability. So a 60D would probably do it for me sight unseen. However, I need to have my new camera for a trip this summer and I wonder if this as yet unannounced 60D would be available in time. NOTE: Just before this went to press Canon introduced the EOS Rebel T2i. This is an upgrade to the T1i that pushes 18 MP, 3.7 fps continuous shooting, some improvements to HD video recording as well as a few other niceties. Nothing revolutionary, but upgrades just the same. I am concerned the 18 MP is just more megapixels for megapixel's sake. The sensor did not get any larger, so I would be concerned that the quality of those pixels will not be as good and the T1i or the Nikon D90.

Stay tuned for the final choice. Now back to lenses.

Zoom vs. Prime

For the longest time people bought Film SLR cameras with a standard 50mm fixed focal length lens. This is also called a Prime lens. A 50mm lens on a 35mm camera gives the same basic view as you get with your eyes. Later we will discuss crop factor for small sensor dSLR cameras and how it relates to this 50mm standard.

Today everyone wants a zoom lens. In the early days zoom lenses cost too much. That cost has come down, and the inclusion of zoom capability in every digital point and shoot camera means that all the manufactures create "kits" that include zoom lenses for their SLR cameras.

Zoom vs. prime? Do you NEED a zoom lens? I don't know, only you can answer that. I will go through that process for myself, and that will determine which is my first lens. However, at the top of this article I said we were going to cover your first TWO lenses. In my opinion getting one prime and one zoom lens should be the priority of every dSLR camera owner. If you think differently then by all means get two zoom lenses or two prime lenses. When I think about all the pictures I want to take, I see a lot of reason to NEED a prime lens, and I will definitely WANT the flexibility of a zoom lens. So its one of each for me... at least to start.

How do you select what prime lens and what zoom lens to get... and which to get first? That depends on two issues. First, what pictures do you want to take, and second how much are you going to spend?

Having owned two film SLR cameras that both came with standard 50mm lenses I am leaning heavily toward getting a prime lens first. I remember why I bought my first camera... to take pictures of cars at a car show. I took a lot of pictures of cars with a 50mm lens. I certainly plan on using my new digital camera for this purpose. A fixed lens close to 50mm should suit a lot of my needs. However, I am going to be taking my sons on vacation in Florida this summer and a zoom lens will be far more flexible than a fixed length lens.

As you can see I have some pros and cons to work out. Do I want the flexibility of a zoom lens for this one week vacation, or do I want the creative capabilities of a prime lens for the rest of the time. You need to examine your own photo taking needs in this same manner. Once you determine what kind of pictures you will take most often, you pretty much let that dictate which lens to get first.

Cost

Really good lenses are very expensive. I updated my Camera Comparison spreadsheet to cover every Canon and Nikon lens I could think of putting on a possible wish list. My goal was to determine exactly what this article is discussing... which lenses to get, and which to get first. The spreadsheet is by no means complete, but I feel that if you need a lens not listed you have far more specialized requirements than I can provide answers for.

You can download the spreadsheet here.

In the spreadsheet I created 5 packages (look at the second page) for both Canon and Nikon with prices ranging from just under $1,500 for a camera and two lenses up to almost $6,000 for a 5 lens package that should cover every kind of picture you will likely take. Like I said... this is a wish list.

You can use these packages to help set a price range for yourself (keep in mind these prices were all correct on BHPhoto when I wrote this article). Package A (A-1 for Canon, A-2 for Nikon) includes a 50mm prime lens in the $400 range, and one zoom lens in the $400-600 range. That's about $1,000 worth of glass to go in front of your camera. This is the least I would spend. If you don't want to spend more than this look no further. Just decide which lens to buy first, or at this price level buy them both at the same time you buy your camera. Package A is between $1,400 - $1,800 with a camera and two lenses depending on the brand. (For Nikon fans that want to save money, you can replace the D90 in Package A-2 with a D5000 and save $200-$300, if you don't need the features of the D90.)

I want really good glass in front of my camera just in case I ever get serious into photography. All the other lens packages include at least one professional level lens that will work with each manufacturer's expensive full frame dSLR cameras. If I ever decide to get a Canon EOS 5D Mark II or a Nikon D700 I want to have lenses that will work well with those cameras.

My budget will dictate only one professional lens, so packages B and C on the spreadsheet puts emphasis on one of the lenses, prime or zoom. For Canon I put one L Series lens into each of these mid range packages. This is their professional line of lenses. Nikon does not have a simple designation for their Pro level lenses, but I was easily able to pick out the comparable lenses for a side by side view.

Zoom or prime? If a prime lens is more important than a zoom go with package B-1 or B-2, depending on brand. These packages contain a professional quality prime lens while using the zoom lens from the $400-$600 range. If a zoom lens is more important then go with package C-1 or C-2. For the C packages I used each brand's 35mm f/2.0 lens. This is in the same price range as the 50mm lens from package A. When we get to crop factor this will make sense. Packages B & C also include a macro lens, since I plan on doing macro photography.

Package D uses pro level lenses for the prime, zoom & macro lenses. This is for people that are serious about their photography... and have a lot of money to spend. I would love to start here, but I just can't justify the expense. However, if this is the direction you want to go you can do this over time. Just buy one lens at a time as money allows.

Package E is a complete wish list of all the professional level lenses I could possibly want. Clearly this is for the professional photographer. I assume anyone spending $5,000 on lenses is going to spend more than $600-$800 on the camera itself. All the lenses in package E-1 for Canon will work with Canon's professional full frame cameras. On the Nikon side, package E-2's most expensive lenses will work with Nikon's best pro cameras.

High End Alternatives

Once we reach the $3,000 price range for a camera and lenses one must wonder if a better camera should be part of the mix. Because I could not stop wishing, I created Package F which gets each brand's most expensive APS-C (small sensor) dSLR camera. I decided to cut costs slightly on the lenses and go with really good zoom lenses that only works with APS-C cameras. For around $3,000 you can have a Canon 7D or a Nikon D300s with a prime and zoom lens. I wish I could afford these camera bodies. These are the pinnacle of small sensor cameras.

While pricing the more expensive cameras I could not help but wonder what kind of package the full frame cameras came with. I priced these on BHPhoto as-is, rather them manually pairing a lens to a camera. Here we have the Canon 5D Mark II with the 24-105 L Series lens I put in many of my own packages. On the Nikon side they paired the D700 with the same zoom lens I used in one of my own Nikon packages. I don't believe this Nikon lens is up to the same standard as the Canon L Series zoom, but then the package costs $300 less than the Canon.

These two sets of alternatives are here for two reasons. 1) To show you what's out there. This is an extension of the last article where I said there are no bad cameras. If you can afford these high priced cameras they are great choices. 2) As my personal wish list. I would love to be able to justify spending this much money. I can't, so I can just dream about it in the spreadsheet.

Crop Factor

I need to talk about crop factor. If you are getting a prime lens you need to know the relative focal length as it applies to the camera you have. In the digital world, SLR cameras that do not have a full frame sensor have a crop factor. Think about it this way, when you make the sensor behind the lens smaller, the sensor sees the lens as being larger. For the Canon T1i it has a crop factor of 1.6, and the Nikon D90 has a crop factor of 1.5. If you put a 50mm lens on the Canon it will have an equivalent focal length of 80mm, and on the Nikon it would be 75mm. If you get a prime lens realize a 50mm lens which normally gives a perspective about what your eye sees is actually going to be a mild telephoto lens on these cameras.

That is why you will see I put Canon's 35mm L Series prime lens on the Canon side. This lens will have an equivalent focal length of 56mm, which will be as close as possible to the old days when I only had a 50mm lens on my film cameras. I really want this lens. The closest thing to this that Nikon offers is a 35mm f/1.4 lens with manual focus. Also, the 35mm Nikon is an imported lens, not meant to be sold in the United States (we call this gray market). Sigma makes a 30mm f/1.4 lens for both Nikon and Canon for about $430. That may be the way to go if you are like me and want something the equivalent of the tried and true 50mm lens of the film days. For this exercise I wanted to stick with Canon and Nikon lenses, since it is those lenses that will stay with you for a long time.

The crop factor is also present with zoom lenses. I will use one example, the Canon 24-105mm f/4L lens has an equivalent focal length range of 38-168mm on the Canon T1i (or any Canon camera with an APS-C sensor). You can do the math yourself for the Nikon lenses. Just keep this in mind as you shop for lenses.

Zoom vs. Prime

Back to zoom vs. prime. In the old days zoom lenses were a luxury and millions of camera owners used nothing but a 50mm lens. Today zoom lenses are everywhere. 3x, 4x, 5x, 10x, 12x. Where will it stop. Making zoom lenses that are as fast as prime lenses is very expensive, so speed suffers. They call lenses that have very wide apertures (low numbers) fast because they can take pictures with much faster shutter speeds. They also work much better in low light conditions. A side benefit is speed of focusing. Most dSLR cameras focus on the subject with the lens' aperture open all the way, letting in the most amount of light. This allows faster focusing, and allows the camera operator to see better through the viewfinder. It is when the shutter is pressed that the camera closes the aperture to the amount necessary to take the picture.

Think about this when deciding to get a zoom lens. You have to spend over $1,000 for a zoom lens that will have a maximum aperture of f/2.8. Where as a prime lens can beat that for $100. A 50mm prime lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 is still reasonable in the $400 range.

It is the wide aperture that allows you to blur out the background in pictures, as well as work with much less light... such as indoor photography without a flash. If you get one of the midrange zoom lenses notice that you will be limited to f/3.5 and only at the closest zoom setting. Most of these lenses can only reach f/5.6 when zoomed out. The expensive zoom lenses will go to f/2.8 or f/4.0 throughout the entire zoom range. This will provide good depth of field control for blurring the background in your photos.

Decision Time

There you have it. Decide what you need, and what you want. Then pick the package that is right for the kind of pictures you plan to take and how much money you want to spend.

For me Canon seems to have a better selection of lenses for the photography I plan on taking. Since I am going to be spending more money on lenses than I am on the camera I think it is reasonable to let the lenses dictate the brand. Since the lenses go with you and your photography as you go from camera to camera, this is a good thing. It is very likely that this article has pushed my own decision toward the Canon EOS Rebel T1i. (NOTE: Unless the still unannounced 60D is available before I drop my cash down).

I really want that Canon 35mm f/1.4 L series lens. Nikon really doesn't have an equivalent, only having a manual focus import lens. Unfortunately, I can't justify $1,400 for a single purpose lens. I will most likely get one of the 35mm f/2.0 lenses paired with a professional quality zoom lens. This means Package C for me.

Canon or Nikon? Look at the spreadsheet and see what each brand has to offer (keep in mind these were just the lenses I would think about, each company has many more lenses than those listed here). Once you have those expensive lenses you are most likely going to stick with that brand forever.

Buy the camera based on the lenses, unless you already have some prejudice toward or against one of the companies.

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Current Computer Eco-System & the iMac

This month I want to explain my current computer hardware environment. This will become important over the next few months as I progress toward my ultimate goal for a new computer eco-system. Let's go over what I have, then I will explain where I want to go.

File/Print/Web Server:

  • 320 GB drive (250 GB for file sharing)
    • Holds ALL install files
    • Holds non-standard copy of music files
           These are stand alone MP3 files, not those in iTunes or Zune
    • Holds ALL photo files
    • Holds backup of ALL critical files from desktop PC
           Includes Documents, Personal Files, Music, Pictures, Mail, etc.

Desktop PC:

  • 120 GB C: drive
    • Hold ALL my music files
  • 100 GB D: drive
    • Holds all my personal files (particularly items normally for the Documents folder.
    • Holds miscellaneous data files
  • 1.5 TB USB external drive
    • Holds ALL video files
    • Holds ALL downloaded files

Over the course of the next few months (once you see the cost you will understand this will take some time) I would like to get to the point where I have multiple computers for different tasks. The reason I can have multiple computers is simple... my current desktop computer is adequate for many tasks as it is. I plan to use it and its two hard drives as a guinea pig computer. It can easily dual boot because I can set the computer to boot off either hard drive.

A few months ago I mentioned I want to build a new desktop computer for running Windows 7. I may still do that, but an interesting development has occurred that may have me rethink that approach.

On top of all this this I want to get a Mac. I want to do this as cheaply as possible. My gut tells me that with two computers (Win 7 & Guinea Pig) I will want to get a KVM (Keyboard, Video, Mouse) switch that will allow me to use one keyboard, mouse and monitor for both computers. To add a Mac to this environment on the cheap would mean a Mac Mini. Snow Leopard is supposed to be leaner and faster than the previous version of the Mac OS, and the latest & cheapest version of the Mac Mini family has 2 GB of memory and decent graphics. I could plug the Mac Mini into a KVM switch and have three computers on one set of inputs and one screen.

This seems simple enough, and this was the major plan for creating my New Eco-System.

However, A few things have come up. First, I am going to get back into photography as a hobby (see my Digital SLR Camera Buying Tips article as well as the lens selection article above). I plan to use Photoshop extensively. I could use Photoshop on a PC or a Mac. The important thing is the monitor. If I am going to be using Photoshop a lot I want a bigger monitor. My current display is 22" with a resolution of 1680 x 1050. I want at least HD resolution of 1920 x 1080. I would prefer even more resolution if possible.

Going to a larger display has muddied the waters considerably. I have seen some 23-24" displays in the $300-$400 range that are 1920 x 1080. This would work well with Blu-Ray... if I bothered to sit at my desk to watch a movie. But is there anything BIGGER?

I did a search on NewEgg and they only list 3 monitors with a resolution of 2048 x 1152. Two are 23", which I think will "feel" small compared to my current display. For that much resolution you want a larger size. That left an Acer model that is 27" for $430. The only other monitor that had a resolution above 1920 on NewEgg's web site was a HP LP3065 30" monitor with a resolution of 2560 x 1600 that lists for $1,200. Seems simple enough... 27" @ 2048 x 1152 for $430 or 30" @ 2560 x 1600 for $1,200.

The next big thing comes from Dell. They recently came out with a 27" monitor that has a resolution of 2560 x 1440. The Dell UltraSharp U2711 is selling for $1,099.

Or is there yet another solution?

Here's were it gets fun. The new 27" iMac has a resolution of 2560 x 1440 and starts at $1,700. Remember, I am contemplating a Mac Mini which starts at $600. In fact, let's take a look at this in detail:

Mac Mini $599 27" iMac $1,699
    2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo       3.06 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo  
    2 GB Memory       4 GB Memory  
    160 GB Hard Drive       1 TB Hard Drive  
    nVidia GeForce 9400M (256 MB)       ATI Radeon HD 4670 (256 MB)  
       
Dell U2711 27" $1,099 27" Included $0
    2560 x 1440 (16:9)       2560 x 1440 (16:9)  
       
Total $1,698 Total $1,699

So, if we really want 2560 x 1440 resolution these two solutions are the same price. However, notice the performance difference between these two Macs... not to mention the hard drive space.

But wait, there's more. The 27" iMac can accept input from other sources through a DisplayPort. A quick check on nVidia's web site shows that their GeForce GT 200 series video cards support DisplayPort output (the Win 7 PC I was considering building used either a GTX 260 or GTX 285, both are part of the 200 series). This means if I build a Win 7 PC I can hook it up to the iMac's screen.

Let's take this one step back. Macs have Boot Camp which allows them to dual boot into Windows. I could setup Boot Camp on the 27" iMac and dual boot between OS X and Win 7. The specifications of the iMac above are pretty stout and should run Win 7 with ease. The graphics won't be up to serious gaming levels, but for everything else it would be excellent... even running Win 7 in a virtual machine without rebooting. This would be for the few Windows apps that I cannot live without.

So, now you know my dilemma. Do I build a Win 7 PC, get a Mac Mini and get a new display... or do I buy an iMac? I have seen the iMac screen at Best Buy and it looks amazing. In fact, it was seeing this monitor that started me looking for other monitors with similar resolution. Will others step up like Dell and make 27" (or larger) display with 2560 x 1440 resolution. Will prices come down?

The next step is to look into KVM switches that support DisplayPort as well as DVI.

Stay tuned. I expect this to play out during the summer of 2010. In the coming months I will tell you about the rest of the New Computer Eco-System.

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Conclusion

That's it for this month. I am totally stoked to get a new camera before my summer vacation. And new hardware after my vacation.

Stay tuned, it should be fun. Better yet, subscribe to my monthly newsletter and you will be notified when these articles are posted... delivered right to your in-box.

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