Originally published on Guest Blog Wednesday in Scott Kelby's Photoshop Insider November 3, 2010. NOTE: Because of the improvements in camera bodies since the publication of this post in 2010, I have gone back and updated some of the information. To verify if the estimated prices of equipment, go to KEH.com or B&H's website and search for the equipment prices in today's market. With all the disclaimers out of the way, here goes.
Part II - Shooting on a budget
For many of you who simply want to shoot good photos of your kids playing youth or high school sports, the equipment on my top ten list of pro sports photography gear (yesterday's Blog post) is likely beyond your interest or budget. The list was intended to cover the gear that I believe would suit the needs of individuals who intend to shoot sports on a professional, or at least a semi-professional, level. For those of you who either have no desire to do anything but take good photos of your kids, or who want to test the sports photography waters without having to sell your first born child, here’s a few additional thoughts.
Before delving into specifics, allow me a brief moment to mention something that I see happen all too often. The most common mistake made by folks buying photography equipment is the failure to understand the limitations of the equipment being purchased. Many who want to photograph their kids head out to a big box store and rely on the sales pitch of clerks who don’t have a clue about the limitations of the equipment they sell. That often leads to buyers being swayed by the focal length of lenses without any consideration given to lens apertures. There are boatloads of lenses that have focal lengths of 300mm, 400mm and even 500mm but are too slow for anything other than shooting in broad daylight. When shooting in poor light (indoors or outdoors) or under lights, the resulting shutter speeds are inadequate to stop action. That leads to blurred images, blurred hands, blurred feet and a lot of disappointment. If you push the ISO in order to raise the shutter speed, it is almost impossible to obtain images with acceptable noise levels so again the images are disappointing but for a different reason.
Short and sweet, it doesn’t do any good to buy a lens that will reach out to 300mm, 400mm or 500mm if the fastest aperture setting is too slow to suit your purposes or if the lens produces soft images. It’s easy to be enthralled with the focal length of a lens when you’re shopping, but you will kick yourself for spending money on equipment that will ultimately disappoint. Even if you must sacrifice focal length, opt for lenses with apertures that will open to f2.8 and you'll be a lot happier in the end.
There's another reason for avoiding anything other than f2.8 lenses - quality of glass and the resulting sharpness of images. Cheap lenses use cheap glass and cheap glass equals soft images. What good does it do you to reach out with a 400mm lens if the image you get is soft?
OK, so what should you buy? Let’s start with camera bodies. Remember that I shoot Nikon, so this discussion will only make reference to equipment I know. Hands down, the best bang for the buck right now in an affordable camera body (Canon or Nikon) is the Nikon D300. It’s so good it made my Top Ten list of pro-level equipment. The noise level at ISO 1600 is far superior to its predecessor (the D200) and in my opinion, far superior to Nikon’s flagship camera body from only a few years ago, the D2X, which sold for $5,000. Used D300′s can be found for as little as $500. Without the optional battery pack, this puppy gives you 6 frames/second, which is serviceable. If you can splurge, definitely pick up a used battery pack (used – $100) – that will give you much longer battery life, 8 frames/second, and a second shutter button for use when shooting vertically.
For newer technology, my next choice would be the Nikon D7000. Lightly used versions run just over $500. Add a used battery pack for approximately $150 and you’ll end up with a body that will shoot at 6 fps, noise levels that should be acceptable up to ISO 800 and even ISO 1600 as long as your expectations are realistic and you process images with noise reduction software such as Photo Ninja. It also shoots video, which the D300 will not do.
Now, let’s look at lenses. Basically, you have two choices: you can go with Nikon lenses or you can save some money and purchase non-Nikon lenses. Always remember that you get what you pay for. Sigma, Tamron and Tokina lenses are cheaper than their Nikon counterparts. If cost is an issue, you may not have a choice but, for my money, Nikon lenses are superior in terms of image quality and durability. For many of you, durability may not be a critical issue as you will not subject your equipment to enough usage such that this will be a factor. I use my equipment almost daily and I wore out (to the point of failure) two Sigma lenses that were touted as pro line lenses before I learned the lesson. I have only had one failure with a Nikon lens and that was a 20-35mm which I bought for half of what a used one normally costs due to the wear and tear to which it had been subjected. It served me well for a good long while and for $350, I got more than my money’s worth.
I would highly recommend that to start off, you invest in at least two lenses. The first one would be a mid-range zoom and if price is first and foremost, you have a choice between the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 and the Tamron 70-200mm f2.8. Used, expect to pay somewhere between $400-$500. This focal range is the most versatile for sports and if I could only have one lens this would be the focal length I would choose without batting an eyelash. Add a 1.4X Teleconverter to the mix and on either of the two bodies I’ve suggested (with a 1.5X factor due to the dx sensor), it would give you an overall focal length of 168mm-420mm at f4. An f4 aperture will be fine outdoors but you don’t want to use the teleconverter indoors or under lights. Without the teleconverter your effective focal length with the suggested dx sensored camera bodies would be 105mm-300mm with and an f2.8 aperture capability. Sigma’s 1.4X Teleconverter can be found for $100-$130 in used condition. I haven’t priced the Tamron version but I would expect it to be comparable in price.
A couple of teleconverter caveats: 1) do not make the mistake of buying an off-off brand (Kenko comes to mind) unless you have no other choice – with teleconverters, always try to go with whatever brand lens you choose and you will be much happier; 2) do not be tempted to get a 2X teleconverter – your aperture will be f5.6 wide open and autofocus will be sketchy at best; and 3) make sure that the teleconverter you select is designed to actually fit the lens you are going to be using – not every lens will fit on every teleconverter, even if it’s the same brand. A knowledgeable salesperson will make sure that you're getting a teleconverter that will work with your lens if you tell them exactly what lens(es) you own.
For a few extra bucks, you can go with the Nikon version of the mid range zoom lens. I would encourage you to go this route if at all possible. Nikon made a great 80-200mm f2.8 lens that has been upgraded several times, but it is still rock solid. Checking KEH.com, I found several of these with lens hood, caps and case for approximately $650. This lens will last you as long as you care to own it and it will deliver top quality images. It will also focus much faster than a non-Nikon lens. If you can add a teleconverter, unfortunately, you have no choice but to go with a Kenko as neither of the Nikon teleconverters that I would recommend will work with this lens. The only Kenko I would consider is the Teleplus Pro 300 1.4X, and used you should be able to find one for $150-$175. Nikon’s TC14E and its more recent version, the TC14E-II, only work with AF-S and AF-I lenses and the older,version of the lens I've identified is neither. The Kenko teleconverter will not give you images as sharp as a newer lens/TC14E or EII combination, but remember, you’re on a budget and thus some sacrifice must be made in order to keep the cost down. It’s not as if the images you get will be poor quality, but when using the Kenko TC there will be a decrease in sharpness when compared to a Nikon lens with the TC14E or E-II.
If you can afford a second lens, you have some choices. My preference would be a wide angle zoom, and first I’ll discuss the off brand lenses. Tokina’s 28-70mm f2.8 ATX Pro SV lens is a good choice and can be found used for approximately $200. Both Sigma and Tamron make comparable models and are in the same price range. For example, checking KEH.com a while back, I found a Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 Aspherical D DG EX model available for $215. That price should be less today. As with the 70-200mm’s, I can’t recommend a Sigma over a Tamron over a Tokina. They are of comparable quality, design and performance. Should you decide to go with Nikon, my recommendation would be the 35-70mm f2.8, which I own. This lens is in my pro Top Ten list and next to my 80-200mm, I use this lens more than any other. To me, the modest price difference makes it worthwhile to splurge and go with Nikon.
Last but not least, you should definitely pick up a good strobe. Shoe mount strobes are the way to go and Nikon’s SB600 is a great all-purpose strobe. It’s not as powerful as its big brothers (SB800 and the SB900), but it will suit most purposes just fine at approximately half the cost. A used SB600 can be easily found for less than $200 and makes a great addition to any camera outfit. The purpose of a strobe is not so you can shoot sports action as the use of strobes is prohibited in most cases and frowned upon at best. However, a good strobe can provide you with the versatility of lowering your ISO indoors for non-game action shots as well as for fill-in light on non-action outdoor shots.
There you have it. A basic set of equipment that will serve you well if your goal is to shoot sports on a budget. From here, if you decide to add equipment, Sigma makes a 120mm-300mm f2.8 lens that compliments the 80-200mm focal length nicely. Another option is to go with Sigma’s fixed 300mm telephoto which is slightly more expensive but yields slightly better images. The fixed lens won’t have the versatility of the zoom, so you have to decide what will suit your circumstances. Either of these lenses can be found used for less than $2,000. New they run over $3,000. I did not include these lenses above as they are not exactly items that are for the budget conscious but if you decide to get a bit more serious, they are certainly worthy of consideration.
Many thanks to Scott and to everyone at Kelby Media for giving me the chance to reprise my appearance on Scott’s Blog. It’s always a pleasure to work with Brad and the other folks in Scott’s arsenal. Finally, my thanks to all of you for taking the time to read my post. I hope you are able to glean some information that is helpful to you.