An enthusiastic tyro interviews a sarcastic and jaded Leif Norman

about photographic equipment

and the reason why he bought what he bought.


Leif Norman, looking smug and psychedelic
Leif's shoes. He likes Chucks, Keens, and No Sweats. Sketchers have let him down too much.

 

What type of gear should I buy? I’m “passionate” about photography and want to be taken “seriously”.

Well, budding neophyte, you should only buy things that come out of a Canon Factory, a Lowepro factory or a Häagen-Dazs factory.

What about Olympus? Pentax is pretty good right?

Pentax LX

(Leif chokes on his FiveBucks latte and rolls his eyes)

Is that a no?

Yes. It’s No. Pentax has not made a serious camera body since the LX which was over 20 years ago; and Olympus was certainly kick ass, in the 70’s and early 80’s. Ha! For better or worse, all pros shoot Nikon or Canon.

Why? Are they mindless sheep?

Yes. I mean no! Canon and Nikon have the best selection of lenses. Bam. End of argument. (thoughtfully sips overpriced latte) They build low end amateur crap but also build the high priced super rugged, teched out specced out stuff that delivers high quality images and can take a beating.

So whatever is the most expensive is best? (looks at latte)

Yes. Usually. Unless you are buying a gold-plated toilet seat. That’s just a waste of money for show offs.

What about Leica or Voigtlander?

Pfff… Show offs.

So you prefer Canon over Nikon?

Nikon D700

I started out with a Pentax ME Super and then an MX and a K1000. I love Pentax but I wanted a kick ass modern camera. When I first bought a digital SLR in 2005 I did some tests between the Nikon D70 and the Canon 20D. The image quality of the Nikon was not so hot. Smooth areas like skies and tabletops appeared rough and the edges of things that should have been clean and sharp, like a light pole or the edge of a poster, seemed fuzzier and rougher than the Canon. Since then I believe Nikon and Canon are probably equal when it comes to image quality, at least in the mid to higher end bracket. But I have not tested this. Even more important to me is the control wheel on the back of the Canon. Ergonomically my thumb and index fingers don’t work with the Nikon set up, it’s annoying.

See how the Nikon dials are on the front under the shutter button and on the back up by where your right cheekbone would be?

My hand does not fall easily into that position. The Canon front dial is on the top behind the shutter button. Nice. The rear dial is huge and down low where your thumb naturally goes when you grip the camera. Nicey nice.

Aren’t you being too picky?

No! I shot a wedding one day, an 8 hour day, with a D100 Nikon and had a cramped hand. A cramped hand!

All those Nikon fans out there don’t seem to mind.

Yeah. They probably drive Hyundais and think they are driving Aston Martins.

Are you always a dick?

Yes.  Actually it doesn’t really matter. The picture you get at the end of the day matters.

That sounds reasonable. For a second there you were sounding like someone who buys a car only because they like the colour.

Nikon D700
Canon 5D mark ll top view

Nah. That would be foolish! But… well…. that reminds me. I don’t like how the Nikons feel. The buttons and layout bug me and the menus are baffling. The shutter sound is a weak wristed fluh fluh fluh; sounds like the camera is filled with margarine. And the lens mount is too small on Nikons. And their autofocus system is from the 70’s. Canon builds custom motors IN each lens instead of trying to drive them from the body with a spin pin. Ridiculous!

(sigh) Can we talk about something else? Erm, how many lenses do you own?

Oh I don’t know. Dozens. (stares out the window and dreams of Flea Markets full of undiscovered Zeiss, Voigtlander and Agfa medium format folding pocket cameras from the 50’s)

Do you just use the kit lens that came with the camera?

What! This interview is over! (Leif gets up and starts walking to another nearby FiveBucks)

Sorry! Wait! (follows him) Is that so wrong?

Yes! No! I need another coffee! (long pause) Kit lenses are for mommies and dilettantes. Some wise ass once said “Every time you use a kit lens, a kitten dies“. People who have no idea about photography use kit lenses because that’s the lens that came with their camera! The manufacturers only make them to get people hooked on their first SLR body; then they hope they purchase better more expensive lenses in the future. Kit lenses are garbage. It’s like selling a printer for $79 but the ink tanks are $20 each. They hook you!

Canon 5D mark ll back view

So the camera is like a printer and the ink cartridges are the lenses?

No! It’s like selling a boat with a cheap motor. A motor that only fits on THAT type of boat, so you are forced to buy different and more expensive motors.

So forget the printer metaphor?

Yes. A camera is a boat and not a printer.

But what if you can’t afford bunches of expensive lenses?

Well, if you can’t afford the ticket then you can’t get on the train. Duh. But to be honest you could hand a cheapo SLR with a wretched kit lens on it to a pro, and he will make it work. The gear matters, but only up to a point. In some cases you can’t win Formula One in a Toyota Camry, but life isn’t always like a racetrack.

Right. So…. what lenses do you use?

I used to only have zoom lenses but now I’m getting more snotty and pretentious so I’m buying more primes.

Primes?

Non zooming lenses, man! Primes have better glass. And wider apertures for corny depth of fieldy looks. I still have zooms for rough and ready event shooting where you have to move fast and get the shot, but I like primes because they force you to see the shot in you mind a bit more clearly before you shoot.

So… what zoom lenses do you have?

Canon 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 II about $350

A Canon 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 II was my everyday workhorse. I just replaced it with a Canon 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 with image stabilization. The old 28-105 was totally full of dust and crudlies, but you could only see them if you shot right into the sun. Also the autofocus was starting to go after 5 years of hard use. But now that I have started to use the 28-135 lens I discovered something unsettling. When I would zoom in and focus with the 28-105 and then zoom out and recompose the focus would not change. This is called parfocality. The 28-135 is a varifocal lens, which is a dirty trick of design. When the lens is focused and then zoomed a bit more, the focus point will change. That sucks! You can’t zoom all the way in tight on a spot to check focus and then zoom out and deal with the shot. Sucks! I was thinking of buying the 24-70mm f/2.8. This is the lens that all “serious” photographers insist must be owned, but there was one major thing wrong with it. Hang on. I’ll have a Grande Pike. Do you want a coffee?

No thanks. I already had my coffee this morning.

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 about $1500

This morning? Hah! It’s 6pm dude! Any way. Regardless of the 24-70mm lens being an L lens touted with superior optics there is one thing about it that drives me nuts. Besides the fact that it’s too heavy to shoot with all day, and I do shoot ALL DAY long.

Am I supposed to be impressed?

Hmmph …AND the fact that it’s overpriced.

Yes. Go on.

The zoom ring is in the wrong spot.

What?

Wrong spot! On the two cheaper 28-105 and 28-135 lenses the zoom rings are large and grabbable and right on the front of the lens, where they should be. The focus ring is further back towards the body, where it should be. On the EXPENSIVE and so called pro lens, the zoom lens is quite close to where the lens mounts on to the camera body so you jam your fingers if you need to do any enthusiastic zooming. Maybe I will buy the 24-105 f4 L lens now. It’s cheaper and lighter and weather sealed, once you put a filter on the front.

Maybe YOU jam your fingers. Others might not. And maybe you shouldn’t zoom so enthusiastically.

Canon 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 about $500

Look you newbie, how many stand up comics have yelled at you for getting too close to them while you were photographing their live act? Hmm?

None.

Exactly… I know all about stuff being in the wrong spot.

Wait! Your previous rant about Nikon distracted me! What camera body do you own? Canon obviously; right? There was a shot of a 5D mark ll just a while ago in this page. And didn’t you screen grab those images from Ken Rockwell dot com and The Digital Picture? 

Thank you inter web net! The Digital Picture is my favourite lens review site.

So that makes it OK to just take their images?

Ah yes, the Canon 5D mark ll. Full frame digital! Woo! Can’t wait for the mark lll, what ever it will be.

(mutters “twit” under his breath) So you are happy with it then?

Oh yes. I won’t ever go back to less than a full framed 35mm digital SLR. I started out with a Canon 20D and then the 40D which were both great, but thenI decided to get serious and get the 5D mark ll. The frame rate is slower but that doesn’t matter. I don’t often shoot super rapid finicky stuff like skateboarders and horse jumping to need 8 frames a second. The 21 megapixel 5D makes fantastic images! Better than film!

Really? One time I heard a Fuji rep say that their 35mm film is equivalent to 100 megapixels.

Bullshit. Maybe if you count each individual grain of silver halide. I used to shoot nothing but film, tank develop, and print the 35mm negs from 8×10 up to 16×20, and I can tell you that 35 mm slide film is not as good as the 21 megapixel camera. Slide film is equivalent to about 12-14 megapixels. I should know; I tested it. (waits for acknowledgement of how awesome and MacGuyver he is)

Right. We’re getting off topic. Can we talk about this later?

Sure. Another page; for science!

Yeah. So the 5D…

Dust! Sensor dust. Having a full frame digital actually cuts down on sensor dust. Betcha never thought of that!

What? But the sensor is bigger. More room for dust to land on it.

Yes. But the dust is smaller in comparison to the sensor area. On my old 20D had a sensor size of 22.5mm by 15mm. The full framed 5D has a sensor size of 36mm by 24mm. The same sized bit of lint or dust particle on the 20D sensor will cause a much bigger spot on the image compared to the full framed 5D. ta da!

Yes. I suppose that’s a good thing.

One of the white ones.

It’s great!  And the viewfinder! It looks like peering down a narrow tunnel in the 40D. But the 5D looks like an IMAX screen in there. Awesome! So much nicer to shoot with.

Canon 75-300mm f/4-5.6 lll

OK. So Canon. The 5D mark ll in particular. And… lenses. What other lenses?

75mm to 300mm f/4-5.6 lll for the far away stuff.

Is it one of those white ones?

No. It’s a cheapy $300 one. Doesn’t even have the USM (ultra sonic motor). One day I will probably buy the more expensive lens, but for now the lighter cheaper lens is super. I also have a 17-35 mm f/2.8-4 for the wide stuff.

Is that also Canon?

Sigma. But it’s the DG HSM EX lens.

And that means it’s good?

Well, as good as Sigma can be.

So Sigma is not so good?

Just like anyone they make cheap junk and better more expensive stuff. The 17-35mm Sigma lens I have was great, until the focus started to go wonky on it. It won’t render infinity in a crisp manner. You have to stop it down to f8 at least. I don’t know why it would suddenly change like that after years, but it did. Oh; and the corners are always blurry at 17mm. Like really bad. So I think I will buy the Canon 17-40 f/4  L lens in a bit. I hope its better than the Sigma. (thoughtfully sips overpriced drip coffee) Wanna buy a lens?

Umm… No. You are only mentioning zoom lenses. I thought you were too good for them?

Canon 50mm f/1.4
Canon 24mm f/2.8

Well. Only at the very wide and very long focal lengths are zooms necessary, unless you have an unlimited budget, and don’t mind carrying around a lot of heavy gear. In the middle range I have the 28-135 zoom for all purpose work, but I also have a 24mm f/2.8, a 50mm f/1.4 and an 85mm f/1.8 for when I wanna be all arty and stuff. A prime 300mm lens would be awesome for nature and sports, but I find I need the flexibility that a zoom brings in that range. I’m always adjusting from 300mm to 250mm when shooting performers in a large venue. A long prime would be frustrating.

Are your middle range primes frustrating then?

Sigma 17-35mm f/2.8-4 DG EX HSM

No. At 24mm you are going to be very close to the subject anyway. People on the street. Buildings. Burning cars.

You have pictures of burning cars? In Winnipeg?

No.

Oh. Nevermind.

Anyway; you get so you can see the shot in a 24mm frame of mind before you look through the viewfinder. Same with the 50mm. And shooting them wide open with candids on the street or at a summer festival makes for great pictures. Nummy bokeh f1.4 nom nom. The 85mm is only for head shots. It’s a good length for people in the studio but too long for quick and rough random action at a kids fest or a punk show. I might buy a 100mm macro lens in the future and use it for macro and a portrait length lens to boot.

Your tone has changed to less jokey and more serious and informative. What’s up?

I guess the coffee buzz is wearing off. Let me try to get back into the swing of things by insulting you.

Uh… kay…

Alright. This will be good. What does it say on your business card?

Canon 85mm f/1.8

I don’t have one yet.

Hmmph. Get with it man! (go to moo.com btw) Business cards are like gear. Do you have a name for your little endeavour?

I was thinking “FotoClicks” with an F y’know; or maybe “D88 Enterprises”. How about “Happy  Smiles”?

(Leif puts his head down on the table and groans.) You twit! Those are all awful! Why not Spinal Diner photography? Or Schrödinger’s Photon Cat?

D88 is pretty good! Sounds all cool and shit.

No it doesn’t! It sounds confusing and forgettable! Is it about photography, or is it a microphone part? Maybe it’s a code for a battleship? Hmmph…What is your name anyway?

Nelson Langenfelter 

Awesome. Langenfelter Photography. Done. Simple. Nobody will type “Photo Clicky” with an F into Google when they are looking for you. They will type in… Nisbon… uh… Lannameyer?

Nelson. Langenfelter.

Yeah. That. Remember, yer not Microsoft. You are selling you and your personal skills; not stocks in the company. You are the star of the show like an actor or a solo musician; so get over this industrial enterprise LLC nonsense and just fill yer boots. There is nobody else but you so don’t try to pretend you have a dozen people on staff.

(sigh)

Awww… Are you slightly deflated now?

Yes. I had a cool logo designed and everything.

Canon 430EX mark ll

Bah. Spend your time getting better with your gear instead of goofing around with graphic design. Nobody will hire you because they like your logo.

Anybody ever tell you yer a bit of a jerk?

I prefer “Benevolent Dictator”. And if you think I’m a jerk, check out these guys. Actually they really hit it on the head here by making fun of all those gear nerds.

Yeah. Those guys are jerks. OK I think we have covered cameras and lenses. What’s next?

Flashes.

Ooh. I don’t like using flash. I prefer “available light”.

Canon 580EX mark ll

Every green photogarpher says that. Yes; I said photo garpher. Having an aversion to flashes and claiming to only like available light is a cop out. It means you don’t know how to use a flash. Flashes are great! They are just another tool in the box. You can use them or not at your leisure, but everyone should know how to use them.

I have the Canon 580 EX mark ll and the 430 EX mark l. The mark l 580 EX was a bit of a dud. A $600 dud. The battery door was designed by a masochist and the main capacitor died two months after the 12 month warranty expired. Bye bye $600. The 580 EX mark ll is super. Better battery door. Metal shoe. Nicer buttons and menu. Good on batteries. The 430 EX is a good all around slave to the 580 EX master. But I mostly use the 580 EX right on the camera shooting events indoors and out.

Bored now. Can we talk about something else?

An SD card and two Cf cards. Blackjack!

How about CF cards? Interesting?

Sort of. Why do some cameras have SD cards, and some have CF cards?

Small point and shoot cameras have the little SD cards. Big macho pro SLRs have CF cards. Perhaps in the future all cameras will have SD cards, or some different format. Remember Smart Media cards?

No.

Of course you don’t. You were born in 1991. You think Atari games and the moon landing happened at the same time.

They didn’t?

(sigh) I’m old. Tell me; would you buy a cheapo memory card you found at Giant tiger, or would you spend the extra money on a “proper” SanDisk or Lexar?

The Cheap no name ones would scare me. I might lose all my pictures! Don’t they fail a lot?

That’s the funny thing. I thought so too. But Manny Sousa, one of Winnipeg’s best and busiest wedding photographers, told me he just buys the cheapest CF cards he can find and he’s never had a problem.

Oh. So it’s a rip off to spend the extra money on a brand name?

To be honest, it might be superstition, but I spend the extra money and buy the “higher quality” CF cards. It makes me feel better.

I’m confused, but let’s move on.  I think we have talked about everything in your camera bag. What about the bag itself?

I used to have a Lowepro Computrekker so I could carry around my lap top and ALL the gear. It was too big. Now I have the Lowepro Stealth Reporter D300 AW. It’s just the right size and allows me to get lenses and flashes in and out quickly.

Lowepro Stealth Reporter D300 AW

Why did you put OFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPHER on the side?

Because everywhere I go, I like to think I’m the official photographer, even if I’m not. It’s kind of cocky but I feel I own downtown Winnipeg a bit. I feel responsible for the people and buildings and as a photographer I want to preserve images of now for the future. No one else will give me the title, so I gave it to myself.

Are you allowed to do that?

Photographers don’t ask permission; they won’t get the shot if they had to. Did you have to let someone allow you to buy your first camera? No. You took the plunge and said to yourself “Now I’m gonna do it. I’m going into the world to take pictures.” These are the gifts we have to give ourselves, otherwise no art would get made at all.

Wow. That’s really deep or a bunch of bullshit.

It’s a bit of both.

Ooh wait. I forgot about filters on lenses? Those clear UV things?

I don’t use them at all. I go bareback!

What?! (interrobang) But they always say to have a UV filter on to protect the front of your lens. That way if something crashes into the lens the filter takes the hit and the lens is hopefully saved.

Yeah, they say a lot of things in camera stores. Mostly things to get you to buy more stuff.

So you know more than everyone else and they’re just a bunch of fools?

All I know it I take care of my gear and I have never had something smash into the front of my lenses. Lens hoods are a better protection. I use those.

(to be continued)

 

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