The Canon 5D Mark III and the Nikon D800 are two of the hottest cameras of 2012 for professional and serious amateur nature photographers; many serious amateurs and pros in other fields of photography would love to have one too. While not outrageously expensive in terms of camera bodies, they’re not cheap — the $3000 you’ll spend for the Nikon D800 and the $3500 you’ll spend for the Canon 5D Mark III is hardly chump change. If you’re a budget-minded hobbyist or aspiring pro or if you are simply a budget-savvy full-time pro, there are some easy ways to save money on key gear and software choices.
Please note that I’m well-aware that trying to buy cheap can sometimes end up costing more money in the long-run. Believe me, I’ve been down that road many times when I was starting out in photography. I’ve learned, however, that there are times when buying the most expensive option may not be necessary.
Here’s why I don’t always buy the latest and greatest and most expensive gadget or service. As a full-time working pro photographer, I look at new gear and software as a business expense. That means three questions for me. Does this new gadget/product allow me to do things I couldn’t do without it? Are those things I could now do going to make a difference in the quality of my work and thus my income? And is there a cheaper but equally or sufficiently good alternative to the new gadget/product that would still allow me to do what I want now and in the future?
In this little article, I offer a few digital photography-related purchase choices that could add up to enough savings for one of these beautiful new camera bodies from Canon or Nikon and perhaps even leave you with enough cash left over for dinner.
As always, if you enjoy this review and the Deep Green site in general, please consider making your next gear purchase through the affiliate links in the text of this review or at the bottom of this page. You pay exactly the same, and I make a little commission to keep things running. To learn more about the products and services I use and with whom I’m affiliated, check out my Support the Site page.
That out of the way, please rest assured that I do not suggest products or services in which I don’t believe. All of the gear choices outlined below are ones that I’ve made in my own photography and digital workflow, and I would make them again tomorrow with no hesitation.
Some photographers like having a full-size laptop with plenty of horsepower to do a lot of processing in the field. I’m guessing that many if not most of us, however, value small weight and size over performance for a laptop. When I’m traveling, I want something easy to pull out and store and with enough power to let me stay on top of e-mail/office work and my blog, run Lightroom to import/backup/cull/rate images, and maybe to tinker with a few new fave images at night. A small laptop of the 11+” screen variety is perfect for this, and there is no doubt that the Macbook Air would be an ideal choice. The 11.6″ model with 512 GB solid state storage will be awesomely fast, super light, and seriously cool, but it will cost you $1,900.
By compairson, my Acer Aspire One 11.6″ laptop with 4 GB of RAM (same as the Macbook Air quoted above) is pretty sweet. It’s not as fast as a Macbook Air, it’s a bit heavier (3.2 lbs. to the Macbook Air’s 2.4 lbs.), the 500 GB drive is not solid state, and it doesn’t have the same sexy styling. But, the Acer costs only $380! So, I’ll happily wait a few extra minutes while my images download from my card to my laptop. After all, I’m not shooting the Super Bowl, and no one is waiting intently on my latest monkey or orchid pictures. I’ve had my Acer for over a year, and it’s performed reliably. I knew the tradeoffs in performance, and I’ve had no regrets at all since purchasing it.
A tripod is a seriously important part of any photographer’s gear, and I don’t recommend going cheap. Nonetheless, I also don’t think it’s necessary to buy a Gitzo tripod if budget is a concern. I’ve been overwhelmingly happy with my Induro CT313 tripod (see my full review here). The Induro CT313 tripod is well-built, sturdy, light, efficient to use, easy to clean, looks good, and comes with a tripod bag and tool kit. A similar Gitzo model, say the GT4542LS Gitzo 6X Carbon Fiber Tripod, will run you about $1,000. The Induro will cost $545 or so.
Is the Gitzo better? Perhaps, but I doubt it’s worth nearly two times the price. That said, if you have the money and favor Gitzo tripods, get a Gitzo. They aren’t the world’s leading tripod manufacturer for nothing, and your Gitzo surely will serve you well for years to come. If you’re looking to save a few bucks though, an Induro tripod just might be for you.
I used to own the Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead, the industry benchmark in design and performance. It was great, and I had no problems at all with it (though I have seen the tension control lock up on people). Then I decided I wanted to save some weight and contacted Induro. After talking with one of their tech reps, I decided to go with the BHL2 ballhead model from their latest line. It’s great, and I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything at all in comparison to the Really Right Stuff ballhead (except about .8 pounds in weight!).
Both Canon and Nikon make great long macro lenses. Canon’s 180 mm f3.5L macro is sharp and well-built, as expected . Nikon’s latest 200 mm f4 macro is great too. And they should be because you’ll pay around $1600 for either one of them.
I actually use the Sigma 150 mm f2.8 macro lens because I don’t like the super long macro focal lengths for rainforest macro work; I find them a bit too restrictive in terms of flexibility and flash to subject distance. Nonetheless, to stick with the comparison, let’s consider the Sigma 180 mm macro. It’s built like a tank, looks great, handles well, and is very sharp. The new generation Simga 180 mm will even have OS, Sigma’s version of IS/VR. A good friend of mine has the non-OS version of the lens, and I honestly think the image quality is as good as that of the equivalent name brand macros (I wouldn’t use a Sigma macro myself if I didn’t think so!).
The new Sigma 180 mm f2.8 macro with OS is not out yet (prices aren’t available), but copies of the previous, non-OS, f3.5 version can still be had for around $850. Another good option is the Tamron 180 mm f3.5 macro, which can be purchased new for around $740 for either Canon or Nikon. Finally, if you think the Sigma 150 mm f2.8 macro might be of use for your work, the new version with OS is out and costs around $1,100.
Since neither the current Canon or Nikon offerings at the longest macro focal lengths has any kind of stabilization, let’s consider the Tamron or the previous version of the Sigma 180 mm to be good alternatives for the purposes of this exercise, and we’ll stick with Canon for the comparison since that’s what I shoot.
A lot of photographers are starting to use the suite of plug-ins from Nik Software company. I’ve always resisted Nik simply because I was on a quest to keep from having to leave Lightroom but not because of any doubt about the quality of Nik products. I’ve tried them; they’re pretty cool. But I also didn’t want to pay a lot for more software, and Nik is not cheap — the complete collection that works with Lightroom and Photoshop (key for using layers) costs about $500, ouch!
The other day, though, I discovered Topaz Labs products, and I became a convert. I still do everything in Lightroom for most of my images, but there are times when Topaz DeNoise is the answer for noise reduction, when Topaz Adjust can add a little pop to the image, when Topaz Detail can add some interesting fine feautres and micro-contrast, and when Topaz B & W Effects comes in handy for a monochromatic take on a scene.
There are three big reasons that I’ve started to incorporate Topaz products into my workflow.
The first was noise reduction. Using Adobe Lightroom 4 for selective noise reduction (subscribe to my newsletter for a cool trick!) works well for a lot of images, but sometimes I wanted more. I tried a number of the different products out there and decided that Topaz DeNoise worked best for me. In addition to the principal features, the banding reduction for long exposure noise is a nice bonus.
The second was cost. Topaz DeNoise costs about $80. I also was intrigued by Topaz Detail, which cost another $40 and with Topaz Adjust, which sells for $50. I started to think about adding Topaz B & W Effects ($60), and that brought me up to a total of $230. I looked and was able to buy the whole Topaz collection for this amount (there was a promo offer). I could barely even have bought two of the main Nik programs for this amount.
The third reason was the release of the new FX Lab program from Topaz. Despite a rocky initial launch last month due to some strange registration and graphic card issues, the bugs have been worked out, and the new program is awesome. Basically, it allows you to access all of your Topaz plugins right out of Lightroom and to apply them on separate layers whose opacity and blend modes can be changed and on which masks can be applied for selective adjustments. There is no more need to open Photoshop! You can also easily pick and choose sliders from each plugin without having to open each separately. FX Lab is currently available for just $30 but will go up to $80 when the introductory offer ends on July 31, 2012. So, I was able to get the whole Topaz Plugin Bundle and FX Lab for just $260.
Some people love Nik’s control points and the programs in general. I’m not here to dispute that (though I do think the U-point technology, while cool, is just a bit overhyped). Nik programs are great and easy to use, and I do think that Nik’s Silver Efex Pro is superior to Topaz’ B & W Effects at this point (but it also costs $140 more!). If you want Nik, go for it. If you want to save a few bucks on image editing plug-ins, I think it’s worth checking out Topaz, particularly with the new FX Lab. I would even go so far as to say that you could forego the latest incarnation of Photoshop with this new software; I won’t be upgrading from CS5 to CS6. I use Photoshop to stitch panos and to do things that require text but I’ll tell you what, I think I could get by quite easily with Photoshop Elements since I don’t do major cloning or manipulation to my images anyway. With layers in Topaz FX Lab, my other main reason for going to Photoshop just vanished. I think it’s going to be a game changer in allowing for a complete non-Photoshop image editing workflow for nature photography.
Ed. note: My friend Greg Downing who owns NatureScapes just informed me that you can get the Nik Complete Collection at the NatureScapes store for $100 less than buying directly from Nik. Check it out!
Ed. note 2: When I started writing this article last week, the Nik Complete Collection at the Nik site was $600. Perhaps there’s a little price war going on, so the competition is good for photographers
My studio photography needs come in the form of an outdoor studio — for hummingbirds of course but also for landscapes, flowers, macro, and larger wildlife. For multi-flash hummingbird work, four flashes is what you want, and four flashes will also be a great number for many people doing portraits or other types of studio work. You can have a main light, a fill light, a hair light, and a light on the background. Hotshoe flashes work great for hummingbirds and can do double duty for a lot of portraiture and on-location shoots as well.
The luxury setup right now for a Canon shooter would be four of the new Canon 600 EX-RT flashes ($600 each!) and the new ST-E3 transmitter ($319). The new transmitter interface and the radio frequencies coupled with full TTL control is incredible but this kit will set you back more than $2700!
A more budget-friendly option would be four Canon 430 EX II Speedlites ($299 each) and one Canon ST-E2 transmitter ($225). You don’t get radio frequency, and the guide number of the 430 is lower, but the infrared wireless system works well. This kit will still cost you over $1400 though. (A similar Nikon setup would cost about $1550.)
If you’re shooting in a controlled studio environment or even outdoors, you may not need TTL. Manual flash will work fine with a bit of experimentation. The Yongnuo YN-560 flash (~$70 each) will fit the bill. I’ve been using these for my multiple-flash hummingbird setups for about two years, and they work just fine. You’ll need something to trigger them, and I recommend the Phottix radio transmitter with four Phottix receivers. I also use these for my hummingbird work and for other nature work as well when I’m setting up off-camera flashes in anticipation of approaching wildlife or wanting to incorporate off-camera flash into my landscapes. Not having to worry about line of sight is great. To get a set of these, buy first the transmitter/receiver kit (one transmitter and one receiver) and then add an additional receiver for each flash you’ll want to trigger. Note that this combo won’t give you high-speed sync shooting capability so you’ll need to stay below your camera’s sync speed.
If you were in the market for all of these things and followed my choices, well amigo, you’ve just saved yourself $3,941! That’s enough for a Canon 5D Mark III plus a BG-11 battery grip or, alternatively, you could buy a large pizza every day for a year. I think you should spend it on the camera though as I have an affiliate link with B and H and the NatureScapes store. I don’t get anything on the back end from Pizza Hut.
Of course I realize that not many of you have all of these items on your shopping list. Nonetheless, even if you are thinking about only one or two of these things, I hope that the choices I’ve made in my own gear might give you some money-saving ideas next time you go shopping, whether for your hobby or your photo business.
This article obviously is not meant to disparage Apple, Gitzo, Canon, Nikon, Nik, or any other company. They all make great products! It’s also not meant to argue that say, Induro tripods are better than Gitzo, that Topaz is better than Nik, that Acer is better than Mac, etc. The higher priced options, as in all walks of life, usually are higher priced for a reason. These are simply instances that I’ve found in my own photography where I could save money and still get the results that I need. Other times, I’ll spend money for the top-shelf option.
I’m always happy to read your comments, so please feel free to post below. And if you have any great ways of your own to save money on photography-related gear, please share them with us!