Because many of my introductory photography students are working with an entry-level camera, I make sure to cover strategies for upgrading gear without killing the household budget, at least all at once. I want them to leave my classroom understanding why certain features, like a depth-of-field preview button are worth paying for. And a good number of students are working with older models (decade-old technologies are not unusual), so I want them to know what technologies, like autofocus or low-light noise, have seen the most advances.
Especially now, with all the publicity about Nikon’s new D800 and D4 coming out, it’s important to consider this: if you put your only lens that came with your entry-level kit on a new, better body, what you will see immediately is the flaws in that lens. Spending a small fortune on a new body and limiting its capabilities with weak glass is not going to my maximize happiness.
On the other hand, if you go buy your first 2.8 aperture lens, say the Nikon 70-200mm with vibration reduction because you like shooting your kid’s sports, and throw it on your entry-level body, you are going to be one happy photographer. You will see the difference in your pictures right away. Then next year, when you upgrade the camera body to the latest, greatest, version you will be even happier.
Unless you have a trust fund, you will build your lens kit one piece of glass at a time, so where to start? This is where it is important to pay attention to the kind of photos you want to make and forget the hype, the gear lists of pros you admire, and the camera collectors who can quote specs but never seem to show their own pictures. What’s limiting your vision? Do you want to go wider for an architecture shot you have previsualized but just can’t reach? Maybe low light is your thing and you want faster lens in the focal length range you are already using. Take a look at the pictures you liked taking and figure out how many were taken at 70mm or longer, or between 18-35. If you tend to prefer one side of your zoom lens, then start there.
And don’t forget the sleeper of the lens suite: the nifty 50mm 1.8. Canon’s version is under $120. Camera manufacturers dialed in the engineering on its relatively simple optics decades ago, which is reflected in its low cost. It’s small, lightweight, and with the 1.5 crop factor on entry level cameras, it is an effective 75mm, which is a pretty nice portrait length lens. I carry it or its sibling, the 85mm 1.8, in a cargo pocket no matter how light I’m trying to go, just as a back-up. (Nikon has just redesigned and raised the price of its version to $219, but you can get the previous version for $129 at a few places.) Yes, the bokeh is not as creamy as the 1.4, and if I were a straight portrait shooter, I might own that instead. I’m not so I don’t. I can’t say it enough: forget the trolls on the internet and match your gear to your needs.
You can always rent a lens before you buy it. A weekend is long enough to decide whether you will use it enough to justify the cost. Our locally-owned camera store, Pictureline, has a great selection, and if I want something they don’t have, I’d get it from Borrowlenses.com.
If you have the photography bug, the upgrade path is inevitable. Instill desire for round pieces of glass: that’s what camera manufacturers do. Even though you aren’t going to buy everything at once, it’s a good idea to have a long-range plan, especially on the DX/full frame divide. A DX lens becomes nothing more than a paperweight if you buy a camera with a full frame sensor. I still miss my 1.5 crop factor with the D700, but I tend to shoot long. Bob Krist seems still to be shooting with a DX system, and he’s shooting for National Geographic.
Maximizing happiness for every dollar spent, that’s what I tell ’em. BTW, If you know someone who wants to get more from their new DSLR, you can tell them about my next class. I’ll share enough money-saving tips in class to cover the price of admission, explain why aperture numbers go up as the diameter gets smaller, and demo depth of field with a rubber chicken. Who can’t have fun if there’s a rubber chicken involved?