In my bag

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on the landscape photographer’s arsenal (part I and part II), highlighting some of the essential gear I use on the field. It is only then that it struck me that in all that listing, I never really talked about the lenses I lug around when I go out on a shoot. I figured I might as well remedy the situation asap. The reason I was reluctant to do such a post is that I didn’t want it to be a dry listing of my lenses, a sort of “look at me I am so much cooler than you” gearhead column.  So, what I decided to do is to tell you what I use, why I use it, and for what purpose(s). As usual, if you have specific questions about any piece of equipment (listed here or not), just shoot me a question on the blog or by email and it will be my pleasure to help you out.

Wide-angle: Nikon 16-35 f/4 VR

Those who are familiar with my work know that wide-angle photography has been my bread and butter ever since I got into photography. And wide-angle lenses, I have owned a few…Four to be exact. My intro to wide-angle photography was with the very solid Sigma 10-20. It’s a fantastic little crop sensor lens, beautifully built, pretty good image quality, at about half the cost of its brand-name competitors (Nikon or Canon). The only drawbacks were the major distortion at the edges of the frame. It also didn’t like water very much (I am not talking about a little splash of water, full immersion, baby! I don’t do things halfway :D ). I liked it so much though that I bought a second one when the first copy died from drowning.

When I moved to the full-frame Nikon D700, I obviously needed to change lenses. I therefore went big: The Nikon 14-24. Now that’s one big lens: it’s huge, it’s heavy and it’s built like a tank. It was simply put one of the sharpest lenses I have ever known. I mean, crazy sharp. Great contrast, and colour. Everything about it was simply world class. So what did I do with it? I sold it. Why, say you? Well, first, the bulk, that thing weighed a ton. That said, the main issue I had with it was that I couldn’t use filters on it. I often use ND grads, full NDs or polarizers when I was shooting, and the big bulging frontal element of that lens completely prevented that (I know there are solutions now, but none that really satisfy me). To my delight, Nikon came out with its new 16-35 VR lens. And to me, this is the winner. While it is not as sharp as the 14-24, it offers plenty of sharpness, and great color and contrast rendition. It is also superbly built but quite a bit lighter than its larger sister. While it is slightly less wide than the 14-24, I almost never find myself longing for the extra 2mm. On the other hand, the extra-reach all the way to 35mm, makes it a lot more versatile and has me changing lenses quite a lot less than before. The VR adds an extra 3-4 stops of hand-holdability, more than making up for the slower aperture (f/4 as opposed to the 14-24′s f/2.8). Last but not least, it has a standard frontal element which allows me to expand my creative options by using filters.

Moving rocks at the Racetrack in Death Valley

The wide angle lens allows me to capture very dynamic, grand vistas. The distortion resulting from the compressed field of view gives it the 3D-like look that draws you into the scene.

Another use for a wide-angle lens is for environmental portraits. Here I was able to photograph our mountain guide, but also include a grand view of the surrounding cliffs of the Terkeddit Plateau in Morocco

Mid-Range: Nikon 28-70 f/2.8

This is a fabulous piece of glass, a bit hefty, but built like a tank and blessed with superb sharpness and color rendition, in addition to a very responsive auto-focus ability. I use it mostly for portrait work, as it suits that type of work perfectly. That said mid-range zooms can come in handy when photographing mountains. I often try and capture mountains with as wide an angle as I can, but I find that it most often results in dwarfing them and robbing them of their majesty. To try and fully capture the majesty of these mountains, yet still capture the surrounding landscape, I will resort to the 28-70.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley

Here, I used the 28-70 to photograph this quasi-lunar vista, while still rendering the grandeur and majesty of the mountain towering some 11,000ft above Badwater Basin in California's Death Valley

Telephoto: Nikon 70-300 VR

This is, for me, the most surprising revelation of the bunch, both from the quality of the lens itself and from how I use it. When I first started, I think I preferred having my teeth pulled than having to use my telephoto lens. I could certainly blame my very deficient old Nikon 70-210mm, but frankly it all had to do with me. I think I simply didn’t know what to do with it. As progress in my craft and started trying new things and expanding my repertoire, I am finding that the telephoto is the lens that spends the most time on my D700 now. While wide-angle panoramas have mass appeal, I definitely get a lot more satisfaction at extracting a beautiful detail out of a given scene. From an equipment point of view, I first own the AF-S version of the Nikon 80-200 f/2.8. Fabulous lens on all accounts. Crisp auto-focus, phenomenal sharpness, great colour and contrast rendition. Just a superb lens. I think it compares more than favourably to the more recent Nikon 70-200VR (I got to test version I but not II, so I can’t comment about that).  However, for a guy who travels a lot and hikes long distances at times to get to my shooting locations, the 80-200 had one fatal flaw: it is one heavy son of a gun! I mean seriously heavy, we’re talking almost 3 pounds worth of weight. That spells two words for me: No Go. In exchange, I opted for the much, much cheaper and lighter Nikon 70-300VR, which I bought on the used market for a measly 400CAD. Granted, it ain’t a tank, the build is all plasticky and I am not convinced it can take a full downpour of rain. However, the lens proved to be a great purchase. First, it is light as feather. Two, the VR is very proficient and has helped many an impossible situation, especially when coupled with my D700′s great low-light performance. Three, the image quality is in a word: flawless. There is definitely a bit of falloff in quality from 240mm to 300mm, but between 70 and 200mm is definitely on par with its bigger sisters.

floating ice in the Ottawa River

The telephoto lens allows me to isolate details from a larger scene. This is not only useful when the overall scene is not too appealing. You can have a lot of fun drawing abstract images from any location

long exposure of sea water and rocks at El Matador, California

At their longer ends, telephoto lenses allow you to compress perspective to almost "flatten" a scene. These rocks at el Matador State Beach in California are several hundreds of feet way from each other, yet, at 300mm, they look like they are on the same plane, lending a very graphic look to this image.

Macro: Nikon 105mm

Last but not least, my macro 105 mm, which you would have guessed it I use for close-up and macro photography. It also a very capable portrait lens. I own the old, non VR version, and am very happy with it. Great sharpness, contrast and colour rendition. It is also built like a tank (all metal, yes sir). In fact it has survived a complete immersion in the Ottawa river. And I mean COMPLETE. Nikon now makes a VR version, which is supposed to be even better, but frankly, while the addition of the VR is nice bonus, I don’t think you can add more sharpness to a near perfect lens, so unless someone gives me one for free, I am sticking to my gun.

The macro lens allows you to get very close to your subject and isolate details you wouldn't be otherwise able to.

And that’s it for me. These are only 4 lenses but they pretty much do all I need them to do. I am not much of a prime type of guy and find that the zooms ally both quality and practicality. If there is one more lens I would want it is the Nikon 24mm tilt-shift which would come in handy for my architectural work, but also for the wide-angle landscapes. More on that when I get a hand on one…

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7 Responses to In my bag

  1. Nice post Younes – thanks for sharing your gear!

  2. Thierry says:

    Merci pour ces infos Younes, super intéressant… Pour le moment je me régale avec mon 14-24, hormis l’impossibilité de mettre un ND110 dessus (ou alors il faut être bricolo)… Alors je me lève tot le matin :)
    Le 24/70 est le plus utilisé, contrairement au 105mm dont je ne me sers pas réellement pour l’instant…


  3. Joe Williams says:

    Great post! Thanks for sharing your gear, Younes. I have Nikkor lenses – 18-55mm and 55-200mm – and am happy with all they can do. There is the rare moment when I wish I had more wide angle than what the 18-55mm offers, and of course the situation sometimes happen when I’m across the soccer field from my 6yo and wish I had more ooomph than 200mm. Look forward to your next post!

    • Younes says:

      Thanks Joe!
      Ultimately, there is no one perfect, universal lens kit. You have to use what works for you. Also, there is a lot to be said for being able to make the best of what you have. Instead of looking at it as a constraint, look at your smaller lens kit as a creative tool, to push your skills further.

  4. Jason says:

    I’ll have to check out the 70-300VR. I have a couple of 80-200 2.8′s on my watchlist and have never considered the former. You identified the major concern for me with the 80-200 – weight. If coupled with my tripod I’d be able to get rid of my gym membership after a few day excursions …

  5. Steven says:

    Plenty of What For gear posts, but this is a nice Why For post. Thanks, Younes.

    I find inspiration in the fact that you do not necessarily use (or even feel that you need to) Nikon’s latest and greatest.

    In making my way back to my calling to photography, I decided on Canon’s older but excellent 17-40mm f/4L and their simple but honest 70-200 f/4L to lay the foundation of my system, figuring that these two lenses could likely cover 70-80% of my needs. I’ve been very happy with both. And if anyone could try and lay complaints against the capabilities of these two relatively affordable lenses, I would simply implore them to look at G Dan Mitchell’s photographs, made frequently with these two lenses. Stunning!