Assembling a System
How to take as little as possible
© 2010 KenRockwell.com. All rights reserved.
Rockwell in Chico, California, 20 April 2010 (uglier). Photo by Richard Burns. I'm carrying a tiny full-frame 35mm camera, and three more lenses, filters, film and accessories are in the little bag around my waist. There's only 3.5 pounds (1,550g) of gear, I don't look like a photographer, and I'm ready for anything.
Most people ask me about what camera or lens to get. That's the easy question.
The hard question is to figure out exactly which bodies, lenses, accessories and cases will do what you need them to do, with the least amount to carry and the least amount of fiddling between shots.
I'm always astounded over how much time I spend wondering what to bring for each trip, and the world thinks I'm some sort of expert.
What keeps me awake all night is trying to figure out what cameras, lenses, filters, caps and accessories to put in which case so that I can accomplish as much as possible, while carrying as little as possible, as quickly as possible.
The biggest mistake made by most newcomers is to go out and buy everything, and then to try to carry it with them. It's OK to buy everything, but never a good idea to try to carry it all with you at the same time. The key is to select the most efficient collection of equipment and take as little as possible.
Newcomers associate bigger, heavier professional equipment with more and better pictures, but quite the opposite is true.
Attempting to prepare yourself for everything ensures that you will be prepared for nothing. If you bring everything, you'll never have the right lens on the right camera when you need it, and you'll be too weighed down to move comfortably. Less is more.
Camera Body top
The choice of camera body is the easiest part.
Choose the body first, since you must use lenses that work with it.
Today, this is usually a non-issue because within one brand, pretty much everything works together.
This becomes more of an issue when you use older equipment as I do, and some older and newer lenses, accessories and bodies may not be completely compatible.
With Nikon, see Nikon Lens Compatibility and Nikon Lens Technology for specifics. You can get bitten with the divide between Nikon's two occasionally incomparable AF systems (AF and AF-S), and with older equipment, there are many potential incompatibilities as Nikon added new lens features.
With Canon, there was a great divide in 1986. Everything made since about 1986, called EF or AF, works with each other, while everything older, often called FD or manual-focus, is completely incompatible with today's Canon equipment. Canon's current EF-S lenses only work on their 1.6x digital cameras.
Just about every lens LEICA has made since 1932 works perfectly on every LEICA camera ever made, and every LEICA camera made since 1954 works with almost every lens. See my LEICA Reviews and LEICA Lens Reviews for specifics.
Whatever bodies and lenses you pick, you need to pick them so that the features you need integrate and work well together as a system. When you broaden your outlook to include cameras or lenses made decades ago, it becomes more difficult to pick what works well with each other, but the results are worth it.
Lens coverage top
Newcomers often have the misperception that they must have a lens to cover every possible millimeter from 14mm through 400mm or more.
This problem is twofold: the misperception that one must cover every focal length without gaps, and the misperception that one needs extreme focal lengths.
Continuity: Don't cover every millimeter top
You never need to cover every millimeter.
It's best to leave about a 50% to 100% gap between lenses, or between ends of zoom ranges.
If you try to cover everything, you wind up having to bring twice as much gear, and wanting to change lenses four times as often instead of just shooting.
Pros simply take a few steps forward or back if something falls between the 35mm end of their wide zoom and the 80mm end of their tele zoom, which is a lot faster than stopping to change a lens.
Don't try to bring a set of zooms that cover every millimeter, like 14-24mm, then 24-70mm, and then 70-200mm. Leave the 24-70mm at home, or replace the 14-24mm and the 24-70mm with a single 24mm lens, keeping the tele zoom.
I'm serious: Galen Rowell did most of his best work all around the globe with just one fixed 24mm f/2.8 and a 75-150mm zoom. Because he stayed light, it was easy for him to sprint a mile to catch the rainbow over the Dalai Lama's palace, while everyone else in his group was too tired at the end of a long day and was more interested in sitting down and eating dinner.
With fixed lenses, don't bring everything. In my stupider days (most of my life), I carried a 16mm fisheye, a 17mm, a 24mm, a 35mm, a 50mm f/1.4, a 55mm macro, and so on. Today I realize that a 20mm, 50mm and 85mm are all I need, and by carrying less, I change fewer lenses and thus miss fewer pictures.
Less is more: fewer options means I'm shooting instead of fiddling!
Ansel Adams carried about three lenses. Each of these was fixed; it had only one focal length. Out of the 300mm range he may have carried, only three of these millimeters were covered.
For most people, a wide zoom and a tele zoom is all you need, and maybe one fast fixed lens in the middle for really low light. Others, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, shot for a lifetime with just one lens.
Don't duplicate anything top
A common error is to carry any two lenses whose functions duplicate something in the other lens.
With a 17-40mm lens, bring a 70-300mm instead. The 40-70mm range doesn't matter: take a step forward or back.
If you bring a 50mm macro, don't also bring along a regular 50mm lens or a zoom that covers 50mm.
Most modern zooms have great macro ability, so you probably won't need any dedicated macro lenses.
Pick lenses that do two things top
By bringing a 105mm macro, you just saved yourself from having to haul another telephoto lens, or a tele zoom. f/2.8 100mm and 105mm macros are much smaller and lighter than f/2.8 zooms, and focus super-close as well. The newest 100mm and 105mm macros even have IS and VR!
Avoid extremes top
All you really need is just one lens somewhere between 35mm and 50mm.
As you go to longer and shorter lenses, they are less useful, and they get bigger, heavier and more expensive.
By the time you're looking at very specialized fisheyes and super-teles, about which most newcomers dream, they cost a mint, and very rarely do anything useful.
They cost more not because they make better pictures, but because they are made in much smaller quantities, and because they are more difficult to design and manufacture.
Lens usefulness vs. focal length. bigger.
As you go away from 50mm, lenses become much less useful, and become ridiculously expensive.
If you want wide, pick one 21mm, 24mm or 28mm. It's all you need, not all three.
If you want tele, one 85mm or 90mm is all you need, not a collection.
As lenses get shorter than 20mm or longer than 135mm, you need them only a microscopic percentage of the time, but have to carry them 100% of the time. They cost far more than the lenses you do need, and are bigger and heavier.
It makes very little sense to carry extreme lenses. It's great to be able to buy them and take them in special situations which demand them, but here's another pro tip: pros don't own this stuff. If they need a fisheye or a 400mm f/2.8, they rent it for the day.
Newcomers are usually enamored with these lenses (I know I was for my first thirty years of serious photography), and the more you learn, the more you realize that your normal lens is what's perfect for most shots, if you'd only learn to use it instead of distracting yourself playing with every other crazy lens.
All this about lens focal length was another easy part. We haven't gotten to the hard part that keeps me awake all night.
Along with all the considerations above, what keeps me up at night is trying is to meet all the above requirements for coverage with a set of lenses with the same filter sizes.
Glass lens filters are important in digital photography, and critical in all photography.
With digital cameras, I'll always carry a polarizer and a gradated neutral-density filter.
With film I also need colored filters to set white balance or contrasts. For color film, I use 81A (A2) filters on every lens by default, and 85C filters in shade. For B&W film, I use no filter indoors, a yellow filter outdoors, and often orange, red or green filters outside.
A good pick is a Nikon or Canon with two pro zooms, each of which will take 77mm filters, but two pro zooms is more than I want to carry. One 70-200/2.8 zoom alone weighs as much as all the cameras and lenses I'm carrying in the photo at the top of this page. As soon as I start to get smarter about what to carry, different filter sizes screw up my genius plans.
For instance, maybe a 20mm f/2.8 and a 35-135mm zoom, both taking 62mm filters, is an idea for a complete system. You just don't need anything between 20mm and 35mm, and these two lenses can cover it all.
It's easy to carry one set of filters, but a bear to have to carry more sets when lenses have different filter sizes.
Adapter rings can bring smaller lenses all up to a common larger filter size, but you can't always pull this trick. Wide lenses need huge step-ups to avoid vignetting, and stepping smaller lenses up to 77mm is inconvenient, or requires two adapters at the same time.
Professional camera systems are distinguished by the manufacturers' adherence to keeping every lens with the same filter size. Amateur cameras stick out because every lens uses whatever size might be handy for it, but won't match other lenses made today, or from other ages.
Nikon realized how critical this is in 1959, and up until about the 1990s remained vigilant in ensuring that you could shoot any lens from 20mm through 200mm, and they all took 52mm filters. For their few big lenses, like their first 20mm f/3.5 UD, 135mm f/2, 180mm f/2.8 or 300mm f/4.5, they all took just one more size: 72mm. Life was good.
Today, Nikon's pro lenses often take 77mm filters, but other new lenses from Nikon will take 52mm, 58mm, 62mm, 67mm, 72mm or whatever, so bad times trying to pick a set that works together as a system.
Hasselblad used to use all Bay 50, and later Bay 60 filters.
The Contax G system uses 46mm filters for everything, except the 21mm f2.8 which takes 55mm filters. The Contax 645 system uses all 72mm filters, save for the 35mm f/3.5, 45-90mm zoom and 350mm f/4 lenses, which all take 95mm filters.
This is another very strong reason I love shooting with the Contax systems. They work well as a system. They are not just a random jumble of lenses which demand duplicate filters and other accessories.
I learned this back in the 1970s, and is one of the main reasons I switched to Nikon from Minolta in 1984. Minolta used different filter sizes each year, while Nikon stayed the same. I was doing aerial photography, and I got tired of dropping filters out the airplane window as I had to juggle three sizes with Minolta. With Nikon, it was 52mm all the way.
Canon has never understood this. All their lenses over all time have taken whatever random sizes were convenient — to Canon. Today, Canon's 16-35mm f/2.8 L II takes unique 82mm filters, forcing me to go buy — and carry — another duplicate set of filters.
LEICA knew this ever since they invented 35mm cameras in the 1920s. Leica lenses took A36 filters from the 1920s through the 1950s, and ever since the 1950s have taken the same 39mm filters and A42 caps and hoods. Lately, LEICA has lost sight of photography, and has been introducing lenses that take larger or unique filters that don't work as part of a system, but if you pay attention, even today you can buy brand-new LEICA 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 90mm lenses that take the same filters, caps and hoods as they have since the 1950s.
I rarely bother with hoods.
Forget the wimpy plastic bayonet hoods common on even pro lenses today. The time spent jacking them on and off lenses every time one comes in or out of a bag misses photos.
If I do use hoods, I use cylindrical metal ones on the fronts of which I can attach regular snap-in lens caps. I leave the hood on permanently, and simply cap or uncap its front.
For instance, I use a 72mm snap-on cap on the front of Nikon's metal HN-2 hood, leaving it on the lens at all times, instead of unscrewing it and losing it each time. Likewise, a 58mm cap snaps right into LEICA's 12 504 hood as used on their 35mm f/1.4 SUMMILUX.
Pro shooters don't use front caps. They leave a filter on the lens, and forget about it.
I use caps, and I try to use all the same size so I don't have to keep each cap dedicated to each lens. When they all take the same caps, I can swap lenses faster when I don't have to match them.
Just when you thought things were tough enough, wide-angle rangefinder lenses often require deeper rear caps than the other lenses. Now we have two kinds of rear caps to manage!
When I use any of these systems, I buy enough pieces of the deeper rear cap, and use it on all the lenses. This way I don't have to match them to each lens, which becomes quite a bear when you're trying to change lenses and shoot fast.
Weight is everything. When I look at lenses and cameras, weight is more important than price.
I add the combined weights of a candidate system, and I keep trying to alter components until I get the lowest weight.
Lower weight means I have more fun and get farther, making better pictures.
It means I can cram it all into one tiny bag, and not even look like a photographer.
Once you've decided on the easy aspects of brand and format, pay close attention to assembling a set of the fewest, smallest and lightest lenses that cover the range you need without overlap, and maintain a uniform filter size.
It sounds easy, but when you throw numerous filter sizes into the mix, becomes complex.
Always err on the side of taking less. Never take too much; so long as you have one lens, you have all you need, and as soon as you bring a second lens, it ensures that the wrong lens will usually be the one on your camera at any given moment.
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