- : What I Use And Why. : -
If you're here you're interested in what I use and why. Hopefully, if you have similar interests to me then there might be some useful pointers amongst it. Here's what I currently carry - I've chopped and changed lenses a bit before finally getting to where I'm comfortable - thankfully lenses hold their resale value if you look after them ! Aside from adding one of Canon's eye wateringly expensive ultra zooms like the 500F4 or 400F2.8 (lottery win pending) I don't envisage changing my loadout in the foreseeable future.
My current camera is an EOS 40D. Aside from two minor niggles its a truly excellent piece of kit that I can see giving me many years of service. I'm going to sound like the kind of internet camera geek I normally decry so you might want to skip this section. Its well built for a start and everything is laid out in a way which makes sense and is easy to find. For wildlife I love the fast autofocus, 1.6 crop factor, large burst (20+ frames in RAW depending on your CF card - see later) and 6.5 FPS. That's massive - I haven't filled it yet - but I know at some point I'm going to be very glad of it. The quick control / main control dial combination is a joy to use and makes setting everything from AF mode to aperture very quick and easy. I wouldn't go back to the way the xxxD series camera's control everything if you paid me. The viewfinder is bright, clear and large. I can't accurately convey just how much better this is than on the xxxD series cameras. Great for manual focus, macro and composition. The 3 custom modes are a brilliant idea. They allow you to have a snapshot of all your camera's settings saved to 3 positions on the Mode Dial. They record every camera setting - custom functions, shooting mode, AF drive, ISO etc. Different people will have different settings - I set mine to allow me to flick between a setting for longer exposure landscapes, high speed wildlife and more general shooting.
Being able to switch between the 3 is brilliant. Noise is very well controlled on the 40D making ISO 400 an "ordinary" setting. Its not bad at up to 800 either. I've not experimented with the higher settings yet as I've not had the need. Time will tell. Highlight tone priority seems to work really well - certainly on birds - when I've forgotten to compensate for light plumage I seem to get less burnt out highlights. There are two things I don't like - first the lack of a mirror lock up button. Having the ability to set one of the custom settings slot to use MLU - plus the customisable My Menu helps mitigate this but still - you have to ask why is there a useless Direct Print button instead ? The second is the AE lock. Maybe its just down to my lack of hand to eye co-ordination but I find this a huge pain to locate and actually use. I end up firing a shot as well as locking the exposure. I also don't like the way the camera resets back to whatever setting you had previously if you wait too long to take the shot - the camera goes to sleep and AE is lost. Rubbish. Its much easier to switch to manual, meter and then recompose. Minor niggles aside the 40D does everything I need in buckets.
I installed the optional EF-D focusing screen. Its around £20 and worth every penny. It adds a grid to the viewfinder which really helps me with composition and keeping horizon's flat. It was very easy to install - although a little nerve racking given my propensity for clumsiness but if I can do it then anyone can.
It took me a little while to settle down on what lenses I needed. Actually it took ages and a lot of messing about. Thankfully lenses hold their value - just remember to keep all the packaging in mint condition if you're looking to sell them on later. Once I took the plunge and shelled out on my first "L" lens (the 24-105) that was it. I knew it was time to start saving - the image quality is streets ahead of anything else. If you're new to photography especially you will probably wonder what all the fuss is about. I can't stress just how much better the image quality really is - and being able to shoot wide open rather than stopping down (normally to F8) opens up so many more possibilities.
I use a Canon 17-40L USM for dedicated landscape work. I love the colours it produces and the range is perfect for what I like to photograph. I ditched the Sigma 10-20 in favour of the 17-40. While the Sigma was sharp I really noticed the colour and contrast lacking compared to Canon's L lenses. Aside from taking an interior shot of a cramped Gulet cabin on honeymoon the Sigma didn't get used and when it did only once used wider than 17mm.
If I'm honest about it the 17-40 is probably a bit of a superfluous luxury. 99% of my shots are with the two IS lenses. I had some money from shifting on my 10-20 and got offered a very cheap deal on a new 17-40 - the extra width and depth of field is nice to have once in a while. Its also interesting in combination with the 500D for flower closeups showing masses of background. The longer you go with the 500D the more it throws the background out due to the narrowing depth of field. I could probably have got away with just the 24-105 and 100-400 for what I do. There's another article looking at the 500D on here - it was very usable and handhold able with a 70-300. The 100-400 really needs a tripod - but it works well with the 24-105 handheld. Cheaper and for me much more convenient than carrying an extra Macro lens.
There's not much to say about the 24-105 except for that its a remarkable lens. Ditto the 100-400. There's lots of very positive reviews out there - and they're all correct. Until that lottery win comes it has the reach I want for wildlife and I appear to have got a tack sharp copy. The teleconverter I use is a Kenko Pro 300DG x1.4. It works "OK" with the 100-400 and according to measurebators on the internet there is no difference between it and the nearly five times as expensive Canon equivalent. To maintain autofocus on the 40D you'll need to tape several of the teleconverter's pins. The centre spot works although seems to hunt more than the peripheral ones. Use of a monopod or tripod with this combination goes without saying.
I use a Velbon Sherpa 435 tripod with 3 way tilt & pan head. It was a straight choice between this and the Manfrotto 190/055 combination. The Sherpa is lighter - and a lot cheaper. Having picked up a 100-400 though I'm finding its not as stable with the large lens as I need so it looks like I'll have to bite the bullet and pick up a heavier and more expensive Manfrotto. It doesn't cope at all well with the extra weight of the large lens and is very difficult to finely adjust - making it a pain for macro work with the 500D attatched in particular. As soon as you extend the legs with 100-400 on it the tripod immediately feels flimsy and wobbles with any breath of wind. For walkaround wildlife work I used a Manfrotto Manfrotto 680B. Its a good compromise - fairly light but very well built, solid and with a maximum load of 10 kilos it should be pretty future proof.
I always use multicoated protective filters and I don't think my images suffer as a result. The Hoya Pro1 series offer a great balance between value and quality. The 24-105 & 17-40 have a Pro1 UV filter and the 100-400 a Pro1 Protector. The reason for a Protector rather than than a UV is for some reason the Hoya UV throws the 100-400's focus randomly off. I've no idea why. If you're looking to save some money you might be interested to know that Kenko filters are Hoya ones branded for the Japanese market. Why is this important ? Simple - Kenko Pro 1 branded filters are a lot cheaper than the Hoya Pro 1 ones and they are identical. This matters to me because I managed to damage my Hoya polariser and replacing it with a Kenko was the cheaper option. Kenko Pro 1 = Hoya Pro 1. Same high quality, same multicoating, same everything. I also don't bother with lens hoods on my two wider lenses as I don't shoot in conditions where I get flaring. A hand shading the lens seems to work just as well if any appears. I'm not saying I'm right - just that hoods get in my way and I haven't needed them. I make an exception for the 100-400. Its not small anyway - adding a hood doesn't make it magically anymore inconvenient and anecdotal evidence from photographers I respect suggests it helps boost the contrast.
When I first wrote this there wasn't much information about fast CF cards and what if any benefits they conferred in camera. That's now changed as has the price of fast cards. Shooting RAW at 6.5 fps the 40D according to Canon will yield 16 frames before the buffer is full and the camera shutter starts to stutter and slow down. Using an Ultra II will extend the buffer to 20 images before it slows down. Using an Extreme III increases it to 22. Anything that extends the length of the burst is a good thing and given that 7 day shop are plugging the 4 gig ones for £16.49 - they're also more durable - it makes good sense to grab those now. Avoid ebay or small, unknown retailers for your CF cards - unless you want a chinese low quality fake. I use a 2 gig Extreme III, a pair of 4 gig Ultra II's & a pair of 4 gig Extreme III's stored in a LowePro Pixel Mate for extra security. That gives me plenty of room even with the 40D's 12meg RAW files. In addition to the standard Canon NB2 battery I also carry 2 spares - both non-Canon brand (I got them from 7 day shop again). Contrary to what Canon tell you they won't explode in your camera, are a fraction of the price of manufacturer branded ones and generally have a higher mAH (in non geek speak this means lots more photos per charge).
I use a 77mm Kenko/Hoya Pro1 circular polarizer and have a set of 85mm Hitech ND grads in 0.3, 0.6 and 0.9 densities. The case that the Kenko/Hoya filters come with is a bit bulky, brittle and tends to come open. I use a B&W one in the bag instead - more compact and durable. I also use a Hitech 85mm 1.2 ND which I find is perfect for long exposures. In bright light when I'm looking to bump exposure times the 1.2 is really useful and beats stacking bunches of ND filters as I've seen fellow photographers do. I use a Cokin P wideangle filter holder (low profile for 85mm filters) with my Hitechs and I've not had any vignetting issues - even with the 10-20, a polarizer and the ND. I've been very pleased with the Hitechs (Cokin ND's have an apparent colour cast) and I'd definitely recommend them. The 85mm's are around the £15 mark each - I've always had good service from Teamwork Photo. Unless you need to stack lots of filters I can't see a point in shelling out twice as much for the 100mm versions. I'm sure Lee filters are also very good but they are eyewateringly expensive. I keep the ND filters in a bog standard Cokin CP306 pouch. Its cheap, does exactly what I need it for and has space for another 3 filters, should I ever decide for some mad reason that I need more.
The anti-dust system on the 40D seems to work very well. I use a Giottos Q-Ball blower for getting dust off lenses - I normally give the sensor a quick blast just to be sure when I've been out. Its also useful for getting dust out the viewfinder on occasions. For lens cleaning I use a Hama washable lens cloth with the usual alcohol based lens cleaner. This works well on the protective filters. As they never come off I've not had to worry about the lens front elements. As I've not (yet !) suffered from a dusty sensor I've not invested in one of the expensive dedicated sensor cleaning kits.
I found a cheap deal on a Canon RS80N3 remote release - there's cheap chinese knockoffs available but I'm not sure how reliable these are. I'd rather pay a bit more and have the reassurance that it will always work.
Its probably taken me even longer to work out what to store and lug it all round in. I originally had a Tamron Messenger 4 shoulder bag - but once I moved to the 100-400 I found that the bag was too cramped and no good for long walks. Despite owning it for six months and treating it pretty badly it looked new when I sold it on. Ideally what I was looking for was something that I can stick my entire loadout in comfortably for the day and carry food and water. Living in Cornwall it also needed to be downpour proof. I don't normally buy from Camera shops as they tend to be pricey - but in this case Geoff Marshall's in Truro were kind enough to get a couple of bags in for me. I settled for the LowePro Mini Trekker AW in the end as it fits everything (including either the tripod or monopod on the back), comes with a waterproof cover and even has some room for food and water. If you want to see how everything fits, you can have a look at my short review of it. If you've got similar requirements to me I really can't recommend it highly enough. Rock solid build quality and comfy for long treks.