The Kit

We're deep into the big buying season now, and I'm constantly answering my email trying to help guide many of you to the best new gear decision for you. Thanks for your questions, I hope my answers are helping.

But all that product contemplation has made me pull back a bit and do some soul-searching. Knowing what I know, if I were starting from scratch today trying to build a "full" and "flexible" system, what would I buy?

We have some additional questions to deal with here. What am I going to shoot? Do I need crop sensor or full frame? One body or two? What brand? What lenses?

Let's start with the last bit first, because without the lens support, I shouldn't be making the other choices ;~). I've been reasonably consistent with my comments on this for years. To sell a completely viable interchangeable lens camera system, you need:

  • The zoom lens trio. In full frame terms that's the 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm trio. We can argue whether you need fast (f/2.8) or can get by with slower (f/4 or variable aperture versions), but we need a base set of zooms at the core of any flexible system. 14-200mm gets you a long, long way towards flexibility in shooting. Shooting outside that range tends to only happen with specialties (see third bullet).
  • Fast (and/or small) prime options. Generally 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 105mm would make for a reasonably complete set. Again we can argue about aperture (f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2.8). But most people can get by with some subset of those seven primes at the faster two apertures.
  • Specialty options. These don't need to exist when you buy into the system, but you need to know that they will exist in the future so that you can extend what you do. Macro, tilt-shift, long telephoto all fit into this category.

With that list, I pretty much eliminated DX DSLRs and EF-S DSLRs from consideration (buzz, buzz!). I also eliminated EOS M. Doh!

So working backwards in my question list, how about brands? Given the contraction of the camera market, Canikony is really the only safe bet moving forward, and even that is not completely safe. Hate to say it Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, and Pentax fans, but those companies are going to have a very difficult time keeping all they currently do on the market. It's not just a profit thing—as all four camera groups are supported by huge, conglomerate companies that can tolerate losses—it's a distribution and marketing thing, as well. Where can you go today locally to see a Pentax camera, for instance? What's the repair situation for these brands like now?

What's the safest? Well, this is where all the Canikon folk will protest my conclusion: Sony FE (and E) is "safe." I put that last in quotes because Sony corporate has been known to abandon markets completely when they fail to provide the ROI they demand. I see no sign that we've even remotely close to that with Sony Imaging, but the world can throw new challenges at companies unexpectedly. No one can rule out a strong global recession (or worse), and that means that you can't rule anything out down the line. 

That said, Sony FE would be a pretty safe bet, and personally, I'd opt for:

  • Sony A9 m2
  • Sony A7R m4
  • The f/4 zoom set as a minimum, the f/2.8 GM set for maximum capability
  • A couple of primes, possibly Tamron or Samyang
  • Fill out the specialty items as I understand what I'm trying to do photographically and they start getting produced

Same body (almost), one built for speed, one built for pixels, the traditional Nikon s/x thing that Nikon stopped doing for silly reasons.

I'd also say that Nikon Z is a reasonably safe bet. Nikon seems to understand they need to fill this system out if they're going to have a future. While the lens set isn't complete enough yet, the ease with which the FTZ adapter brings over anything else you need for the time being makes me have to conclude that things will be fine in the Z mount. So I'd opt for:

  • Nikon Z6
  • Nikon Z7
  • The f/2.8 zoom set if it's all available at purchase time and you need f/2.8, otherwise, sub in the f/4 S's (yes, there's a missing 70-200mm f/4 in the road map at the moment; I can get by with the 70-300mm AF-P)
  • The 24mm and 85mm f/1.8 S for sure, probably the 50mm f/1.8 S (not because it isn't good, but because it isn't a focal length I use or recommend that much)
  • Fill out the speciality items with the FTZ adapter (the PF lenses, any AF-P lens, the 19mm PC-E are all excellent choices)

Same body, one built for speed, one built for pixels, though not quite as clearly so as Sony. 

Clearly, I'd be waiting for more from Nikon than I would from Sony in terms of making my all-mirrorless system, as Sony had a five year head start with lenses and incentivized third parties. Still, I'm convinced that the Z mount will get there fast enough, and so far Nikon has been hitting it out of the park with the quality of their Z lenses.

Would I be concerned that Nikon will get out of the camera business? No, not really. If Nikon goes, everyone will be struggling and trying to get out as fast as they can. The good news on the Nikon side is that you have a massive near 100m legacy lens set to buy on the used market to keep your Z kit going ;~).

As I use the Canon mirrorless cameras and lenses in testing today, I'm finding a problem: I can't build the all-around system I'd want at the moment. I think I might be able to in the future, maybe in 2020, but not today. In particular, Canon is using last-generation sensors in cameras that are consumer (RP) or are oddly thought thru (R). So, no, for now RF can't fulfill the needs I count as minimum. 

Which for full frame cameras leaves us only two other options: Canon EF and Nikon F DSLRs.

Again, I find myself having an issue on the Canon side: Nikon (and Sony) clearly passed Canon by with full frame sensor capabilities, which is one reason why Canon is no longer a clear number one in full frame. I just can't find myself recommending the current EF DSLRs because of that. Not that they're not "good enough" for most people, but because they're not "as good" as you can get for the same or similar price from others. Ouch.

Can I say the same for Nikon DSLRs? No, I think the Nikon DSLRs still have some leg life left. As of today, the D850 is still the best all-around camera you can buy, though the gap has been closing (even the Nikon Z7 is close). The problem is that the Nikon DSLR speed/pixel set is a little pricey:

  • Nikon D5 (soon D6)
  • Nikon D850
  • The f/2.8E lens set, for sure
  • Whatever f/1.4 or f/1.8 primes fit your need (love the 105mm f/1.4E)
  • Pretty much any speciality lens you ever wanted (particularly when considering third party and legacy support)

Different body, one built for speed, one for pixels. Plus I suspect that the D850 will get a bump in the near future, too, keeping that model line relevant.

Okay, we're down to the full frame or crop sensor question. Realistically, we're trying to build out a solid, flexible system that will serve my photographic needs in the future, so full frame generally gets the nod. That extra stop of capability opens up photographic realms that are locked in with the crop sensor cameras, particularly when you start considering the lens sets you have available in APS-C systems. 

This is not to say that I couldn't consider APS-C, only that I'm only going to do so if I allow convenience to take some level of precedence over flexibility. Moreover, I'd find myself dipping outside the maker's box to try and get what you want. Consider what happens when we try things in Nikon DX:

  • D500 body
  • D7500 body?
  • Nikon's 16-80mm f/2.8-4 zoom, Tokina's 11-20mm f/2.8, Sigma's 50-100mm f/1.8
  • You won't find all the prime choices you'd likely want to consider
  • As long as telephoto is your game, the specialty lens set is vast

I think you can see what's stopping me from adopting Nikon DX here. First, we don't have the speed/pixel body thing to choose from. Thus, you tend to end up just duplicating body capability to have a backup. Second, the lens set is a bit of a mishmash. Not optically bad at all, but odd focal lengths, mismatching maximum apertures, and three makers involved to get a good zoom set. Sure, I know some of you will just say add the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8, but I find that a little on the long side as my base telephoto zoom. And it's a big lens, so I'm losing some of DX's charm as being smaller/lighter than FX, all else equal.

I'd have similar problems with Sony E and Canon EF-S, but I'll let you do the detail work there.

So I'm really stuck with three choices I'd tend to recommend to that mythical me starting out from scratch today: Sony FE, Nikon FX, and Nikon Z (FX). Curiously, that's what you find in my gear closet as permanent members. Everything else comes and goes ;~). 

Finally, a lot of you don't need or want really full systems capable of great flexibility, thus you probably do have other options you can consider. But I'd tackle that choice in this way:

  • Is the lens set there for what you want/need to do? If not, stay away.
  • Are you giving up one thing for another (low light light capability for smaller size/weight would be a common one), and are you truly comfortable with that? 
  • How often will what you choose actually get out of the closet? If the answer is "not much," than you probably don't need much, and you almost certainly don't need a full system. Consider going for convenience over flexibility.

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Before the "what about m4/3" and other complaints start flying into my In Box, let me again explain: I'm writing here about camera makers that are highly likely to continue on in the declining market, and that have what I'd call full kits that don't make me compromise my photography in some way. 

I'm pretty sure I need to put my Canon hard hat and bulletproof vest on ;~). While Canon is in some sort of transition, I'd say they're botching the transition so far. The best sensor they currently make is in two of what I see as dead end cameras (M6 m2 and 90D). The worst sensors are in the products that have a full set of options (EF). I'm sure that Canon will rectify all this down the line, but today as I write this, that's a leap of faith you have to take, and trying to buy into something today might mean you're replacing it tomorrow (e.g. R or RP). 

The other most likely complainant to my limited list of acceptable systems will be the L-mount users. But as much as there's safety in numbers—Leica, Panasonic, and Sigma all working together—I'm not perceiving that to be a very safe choice at the moment. I'm also not sure what my speed camera in that mix is. The S1, I suppose. Despite three players, my choices feel incomplete in the L mount at the moment, and are not as compatible in UX as the others are (e.g. S1 and SL2 versus A9 m2 and A7R m4).

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