Where to invest your photo money…

Posted on 21 Jun, 2014 by Scott Jones
Nikon NPS Mirco Lazzari

Facebook connection George Niaounakis sent me this question, and I thought it was interesting enough to answer in a blog post. He has kindly given me permission to do so. Thanks, George!

“I am still in the very early stages of photography – I have a day job and for sure I don’t know if photography, especially in Greece, will provide me with an income big enough to be my only job. The only thing that I know for sure is that it makes me smile a lot!!

“Although I know that I am lacking experience and working hours on the subject, I could really use your help – hint – tip – name it what you like – regarding the equipment side of motosport photography. I wouldn’t have this thought about equipment if there wasn’t a big possibility to get a funding of approximately 10.000€ for investing in photography equipment.

“I currently own a canon 7d and a 70-200 f4 IS. I am thinking of buying an 70-200 f2.8 (in order to have the ability to use it also with an 2x extender), a full frame dslr & a big zoom lens. My concern is the following: Should I get a great dslr and a modest lens or the other way around, for example an 5d Mark III + 300mm f/2.8 or a 1dx + 400mm f/5.6?”

How great to have to find a solution to this problem! 10k euros to spend, but how to do so… Please take what you read below as one photographer’s opinion and nothing more. I expect many would disagree with much of what I’m about to say. But since you asked me, here is what I think.

I’m going to assume first that the money in question must be spent on gear, and isn’t available for other things that might be of greater help to you than new equipment. If the offer were: Here’s 10k to spend on exploring photography and improving your skills, I would probably advise that only a portion of it be spent on gear, and the rest be used to create opportunities to practice and experiment with the type of photography that interests you.

But as far as the body-lens dilemma, let’s consider one aspect at a time. You already have quite a good camera body in the 7D. (As a Nikon shooter, I’m not hands-on familiar with the Canon bodies, but I have seen fantastic work produced with the 7D and believe it’s a great piece of kit.) Before I switched to Nikon, I used the 70-200 f/4 quite a bit and found it a fantastic lens, with several advantages over the f/2.8 IS version which I owned at the time. I have also used teleconverters with 70-200mm lenses, both Canon and Nikon.

Many of my colleagues use teleconverters, especially the 1.4x versions, and get good results. I have not had the same experience, and recently sold my last teleconverter. I no longer use them because the results I got were not acceptable to me. So for me, the ability to use a teleconverter is not a good reason to pick a specific lens over another, especially with a zoom lens such as the 70-200.

For motorsports, the f/4 version of a 70-200mm zoom is not a bad choice, as you are usually working in the day time with plenty of light. If you get into pit lane and want to do portraits, f/4 is still a workable aperture for shallow depth of field. Given that you already own this lens, I’d be tempted to save money by keeping it rather than upgrading to the larger, heavier, and much more expensive f/2.8 version.

But the part of your question that really interest me is this: “Should I get a great dslr and a modest lens or the other way around?” Again, being a Nikon guy I have not used the Mark III or the 1Dx, but I have used bodies in Nikon’s lineup that are similar to each of these Canon models and will base my comments on that experience.

Usually when I hear a question like this, the asker has less money to work with and has to decide between a first rate lens with a consumer grade camera body vs. a pretty good lens and a ‘pro-sumer’ camera body. In this case I almost always recommend spending the bulk of the money on the lens rather than the camera, because in my experience the difference between a pro lens and an inexpensive version is of greater value than the difference between a consumer and a pro-sumer camera body.

But with 10k to spend, you have many more possibilities and thus the question becomes more interesting. 1Dx vs. 5d III in my mind is similar to D4 vs. D600 or D800. (If anyone feels compelled to point out below all the reasons why this is wrong, please do so on your own website, thanks. For this discussion the similarities are close enough.) By making motor sports your subject, the choice is even more complex. For landscape work, I’d have a different response to this question, for example.

In fact, for each of my photographic subjects that wasn’t motor sports, I’d recommend putting most of the budget into the lens choice. Modest cameras are so good these days, they can handle portraiture, nature, travel, etc very well. Recently I used a Nikon D5100 with its kit lens to shoot a friend’s portrait and was very pleased with the results. With a pro lens, I believe that this modest camera would produce excellent images of many subjects. But I wouldn’t use it for MotoGP.

At this point I must further refine my discussion to separate MotoGP from ‘motor sports.’ I have photographed many levels of motorcycle racing as well as several classes of car racing. I have found MotoGP to be much more challenging than any other type of photography I’ve tried.

The combination of the speed of the bikes and their size as you track them over long run off areas means you’re trying to photograph small, quickly moving objects, often at a great distance. Cars are much larger subjects and, in my opinion, are easier for the photographer and camera technology to handle. Slower motorcycles are much easier than MotoGP. Shooting an electric motorbike race is a piece of cake by comparison.

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