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Tools for a Digital Minimalist

Choice of photographic tools is a topic of constant debate on the net. I have no doubt that equipment related discussions consume far more time and bandwidth than all other discussions concerning skill, technique, and creativity combined, and I think that's an improper balance. But equipment is certainly a factor in accomplishing things in photography, so I'll offer my two cents' worth.

Back in the days when I was shooting slides, I did quite well with one camera (first the Minolta XD-5, then the X-700) and four lenses, plus a few accessories. I couldn't really justify buying more equipment in those times, and the fact is that I didn't need more. But starting around 2001, as digital photography was beginning to make an impact on the world, I became increasingly seduced by the growing volume of used 35mm photo gear turning up on eBay. The used stuff was very affordable since demand was low, and I eventually found myself owning several camera bodies, a half-dozen different flash units, and about 15 lenses. Unfortunately, though, having all of that did nothing to improve my skills or enhance my enjoyment of photography, and I was actually languishing as a photographer.

I had been using digital cameras since 2000 in my job as a content developer and for casual family photography. In 2006 I finally made the decision to move to a digital system for my own 'serious' work. This turned out to be an amazing boost to my creativity and also an opportunity to start over in a sense, and return to basics. With the benefit of  my earlier experiences, it only took a few months to assemble a simple and affordable system that is also very versatile, and fully capable of the things I like to do. In some cases I picked up great deals, and in others I paid market price or higher. The important part is that I'm much happier and more productive now with a lean and mean system.

Past Camera: Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D

 The mighty Minolta Camera Co., Ltd. became Konica Minolta in 2003 and in the following year, at long last, they introduced the 7D, their flagship digital SLR. But $1,600 was way too expensive for me and I wasn't really ready for digital at that point anyway. On the other hand, I was poised and eager when the 5D appeared in late 2005. By January of 2006 the price had come down a bit and I had already made the decision to get one when the surprise announcement came that Konica Minolta would be shutting down their photographic business and turning all relevant  technology over to Sony. A certain level of panic ensued in the user community, but I was unfazed. I'd been using unsupported photo equipment for decades, and went ahead and bought the 5D without hesitation. If you want specs and technical data, you can explore it all here. Although the 5D served me extremely well for years, I eventually replaced it with Sony cameras.

Present Cameras: Sony SLT-A55 and SLT-A77

 I found it easy to pretty much ignore Sony's cameras up until the end of 2010, when the A55 was introduced. At that point the time was right, the price was right, and the camera's capabilities were right, so I bought one to replace the 5D. The two most important factors for me were its much improved high ISO performance and video capability. I've been very happy with the A55, but as an early adopter I also felt it incumbent on me to document a few of its secrets (and shortcomings) for the benefit of others. I'm pleased that Sony has demonstrated a firm commitment to improving and expanding on the groundbreaking SLT series going forward. My cost - $750.

In 2014 I bought a very lightly used A77. This model offers several improvements and refinements over the A55, but I continue to use them both for different puposes. My cost - $670.

The Myth of Lens Mojo

There's a fairly widespread perception that some lenses are imbued with extraordinary and almost magical qualities - 'mojo'. This idea seems to turn up frequently in online discussion forums. The mojo may be associated with specific lens brands, or with premium high-dollar lenses offered by various manufacturers, or with certain old 'classic' lenses, or especially with fast lenses. Well, the truth is that the vast majority of modern DSLR lenses are fully capable of producing beautiful results - and that includes a multitude of affordable, easily available ones.

The primary factor that may legitimately make one lens more costly than another is its speed, or maximum aperture. But that's pretty much the extent of the difference - it's just faster. A fast lens requires larger glass elements and stronger construction, but it is not inherently better than a slower lens in other respects. And often it can be worse. Similarly, some people will insist that prime lenses as a class outperform zoom lenses. Though this was certainly true a few decades ago, modern zooms are extremely well designed and can compete easily with corresponding primes. But until people come to terms with these things they are likely to assume that fast lenses, especially fast prime lenses, all have mojo.

I've owned and used quite a few lenses in my time; and I can say with confidence that most modern mid-range lenses - primes or zooms - can provide results that are essentially indistinguishable from those produced by high-dollar lenses when they're used between about f/5.6 and f/11, which is where the great majority of actual photos are shot. If differences exist, they are generally minor and most likely to affect only the edges or corners of the image where they have little or no visible impact.

Now if you really prefer shooting at wider apertures, it certainly may be appropriate for you to buy a much faster, much more expensive lens so that you can do that. Just don't expect it to have magical qualities or to impart its perceived mojo to you or your work. For the rest of us, affordable lenses from the top manufacturers are just fine. With that said, let's have a look at some of the lenses I own and use.

Lenses (In Approximate Order of Usage)

 Konica Minolta AF DT 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 (D): This was the kit lens typically offered with the 5D. Logic would suggest that an inexpensive lens like this should be mediocre in performance, but I and quite a few other owners have found it to be amazingly good. It remains on the camera most of the time.
Filter size - 55mm. Usage - 50% of my work. My cost - $130.

Konica Minolta AF DT 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 (D): I picked this up specifically to use as my only lens on a family vacation, and it served me quite well. Being the first of the original equipment superzooms, it has since been surpassed with newer and more expensive variants that perform better. But it's still good enough for me, and I continue to use it for situations where the 18-70mm feels a little too short.
Filter Size - 62mm. Usage - 10% of my work. My cost - $180.

Minolta AF 50mm f/2.8 Macro: The original 1985 version. A highly regarded macro lens that provides 1:1 magnification. This is something I was keen on having as I'm very involved in macro work. Just as important, the lens plays a big part in my strategy for digitizing 35mm slides. Note that anyone who uses this lens with a digital camera must keep an eye out for sensor reflections under certain conditions.
Filter size - 55mm. Usage - 10% of my work. My cost - $180.

Konica Minolta AF DT 11-18mm f/4.5-5.6 (D): Cameras like mine with APS-sized sensors require specially designed lenses for ultra wideangle use. Being a longtime wideangle addict, I had little choice but to drop the necessary cash for one of these. All APS-sized ultrawides have some issues, but this one is a very good performer overall. Its main drawback for me is that it underexposes all shots by about 2/3 stop unless I remember to compensate.
Filter Size - 77mm. Usage - 5% of my work. My cost - $550.

Accura 12mm f/8 Fisheye: I'll bet you didn't expect to see this here! I've always been a fisheye fan, and when I discovered this bizarre lens I was so pleased that I wrote a detailed article all about it.
Usage - 5% of my work. My cost - $60.

Konica Minolta AF 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 (D): This is one of Minolta's least expensive telephoto zooms, and is not very well regarded. However, I don't do much telephoto work, so I'm satisfied with this inexpensive tool. Used under the right conditions it really can provide nice images; and the size, weight, and zoom range are perfect for my needs.
Filter size - 55mm. Usage - 5% of my work. My cost - $190.

Minolta AF 24mm f/2.8: The original 1985 version. Another indulgence, I'm afraid. I like it as a very compact and reasonably fast 'normal' lens, or as a high magnification 'macro' lens when reverse mounted on extension tubes.
Filter size - 55mm. Usage - 5% of my work. My cost - $150.

Minolta AF 50mm f/1.7: The original 1985 version. Just about everybody has one of these, again because they're so inexpensive. The main thing this lens can do that the 50mm macro can't do is open up to f/1.7. But the image is so soft at that aperture that I would only want to use it wide open for dreamy atmospheric shots, or portraits, or when light is really low. It's also much lighter and smaller; and it makes a good loupe for viewing 35mm slides. I leave a 49-55mm stepping ring on it at all times so I can use the same 55mm filters and caps that fit most of my other lenses.
Filter size - 49 or 55mm. Usage - 5% of my work. My cost - $65.

Minolta AF 500mm f/8 Reflex: I'll have to admit that this lens is pure indulgence, at least so far. In my film days I really loved (and actually used) my Minolta manual focus 500mm mirror, and have been itching to experiment with this autofocus version. I picked it up at a good price, and have been running tests with it for an upcoming article. I'm very impressed, but frankly the lens doesn't fill any real purpose for me. I'd have to go out of my way to find a situation where it's needed. Still, I'm having a little trouble with the idea of letting it go because it's so darned cool and it's only a fraction of the cost of any other long telephotos from Minolta or Sony. Until that difficult decision is made, I felt I must include it here.
Filter size - 82mm front or proprietary 42mm slide-in rear. Usage - 0% of my work. My cost - $430.

I have a few other lenses as well, but I keep them primarily for experiments or very specific purposes. They pretty much sit in the closet until needed.

Detailed information on all Minolta/Konica Minolta/Sony autofocus lenses can be found at Michael Hohner's site.

Filters

I've gone through phases in the past where I kept UV filters on my lenses at all times, but I no longer do that. I could easily get by now with just four filters to accommodate all of my lenses - a UV and a circular polarizer in both 55mm and 77mm sizes. But I also keep a nice set of close-up auxiliary lenses in a filter stacker, though they haven't seen much action in a while. In addition, I carry a Cokin filter holder and #121 and #122 graduated filters in case I need to tone down a bright sky; but I don't remember ever using them. My cost - probably about $170.

External Flash: Minolta 5600HS (D)

 I originally resisted buying one of these for months because they were so expensive, and I do have other flash options available... but it's a fabulous tool, and the price keeps dropping as time passes. See technical information here and one example of use here. It also works great on my secondary camera, the Konica Minolta Z5, which is icing on the cake. I now have two of these. My cost for the pair - $295.

External Microphone: Sony ECM-ALST1

 My cameras' internal microphones don't really handle some situations well. This microphone does, and it's so small that I can actually keep it with me all the time. My cost - $125.

Flash Diffuser

 This silly-looking thing does several interesting tricks. It provides soft, even lighting for almost any type of macro work, eliminates the flash shadow produced by my 11-18mm lens, doubles as a portable reflector, and folds up neatly to pocket size. And it works equally well with the built-in or external flash. After getting this, I sold my much more cumbersome and expensive macro flash. To find one, go to eBay and do a search for 'foldable diffuser'. My cost - $15.

Off Camera Flash Cable: OC-1100

 For those occasions when I might want to use the 5600HS (D) off camera without wireless flash control. My cost - $25.

Automatic Extension Tubes

 I use these Kenko brand tubes whenever the 1:1 magnification of the 50mm macro is not enough. They're also great for extreme close-ups with the 75-300mm (up to about 200mm) when I want additional working distance. With eight electrical contacts and full mechanical linkages, all autoexposure and autofocus functions are preserved. My cost - $75.

Lens Reversing Ring

 This gadget has two parts with one main purpose, which is to reverse mount my 28mm lens on the extension tubes and allow me to control its aperture. The combination provides macro magnifications up to about 4x life size. My cost - $20.

Anglefinder VN

Allows me to comfortably frame and focus when the camera is in weird positions, and optionally provides a magnified view. This accessory is a carry-over from my film days. Happily, the viewfinders on the new cameras are just like the old ones, so this and all other viewfinder accessories will still work. My cost - $70.

Remote Shutter Release: RC-1000

 Great for meticulous work when it's difficult to reach the shutter button, and/or I want to avoid jiggling the camera. My cost - $25.

Spare Batteries

 I like to keep a spare battery for each camera I use. My cost for the spares - about $90.

Lens Pouches

I have three padded pouches that will fit the main lenses I use. They have clips and belt loops so I can easily carry them on short hikes. My cost - $35.

Battery Charger, Cables, and Miscellaneous Stuff

The chargers, cables, and body caps that came with the A55 and A77. Also rear lens caps, lens brush, blower, and mini-tripod. My cost - $15.

Camera Bags

Most of the time I have the cameras and one or two lenses in a pair of small Case Logic shoulder bags. Also inside go whatever other essentials I think I might need like the extra memory card, the card reader, a battery, or whatever. Nothing fancy, but it does the job. My cost - $25.

Equipment Case

Just about everything that's not in the camera bag fits easily and safely into an old style padded aluminum case that I customized with balsa dividers and Velcro tape. It's 18"x14"x6" and weighs about 20 pounds fully loaded. I've had this beauty for at least 25 years. My cost - $50.

Tripod

The one I've had for 25 years or so is a Star-D D-40 Pro Deluxe, which was a variation of the venerable Leitz Tiltall tripod. Someone has actually created a webpage and blog dedicated to these tripods! It amazes me that you can still buy a brand new Tiltall, essentially the same product after all this time, for under $100. And you don't have to get a separate head for it. I don't think there's a better built tripod/head combo out there for less than three times that price. My cost - $70.

Monopod

A Manfrotto 676B with a 3232 tilt head on top. It often comes in handy and can double as a sort of steadicam for video work. My cost - $75.

The Bottom Line

Am I really a minimalist? If you've been following along, the total for everything above has been something over $4,000. That will seem like a lot to the uninitiated, but it's not hard to spend that much or more on just a digital camera, or a single lens - and many photographers do. And many photographers have no hope of carrying all their stuff around in just one bag and a modest case. One thing that I don't own or need is a fast telephoto lens, and that really saves me a bundle, both in dollars and bulk of equipment. But more to the point, I have chosen some of the most affordable and versatile lenses and accessories available, so I feel I'm getting extraordinary functionality for a reasonable investment.

Text and images 2007-2016 Ray Lemieux