Funky underwater camera © 2010 . All rights reserved.

Which Camera?

About once a week I get a question from a friend, family member or aspiring photographer.  It goes something like this:

“My father is looking into a solid zoom lens for his Nikon D40 and is considering the Nikkor 24-120mm. Although I have attempted reviews online, it seems they are all written for people that understand what they are saying. Anyhow, he found a used Nikkor for $350. Is this a good lens?”

Ah yes – the “what should I buy” question.  [Protracted sigh emits from our protagonist]

This topic is probably the hardest one to answer because the inquisitor is looking for technical expertise, but wants that technical jargon converted into a binary answer (i.e. Good vs. Bad).  The problem is that you have several factors at work, and only you know how to weigh them.

The main factors are:
Convenience:  How heavy is it?  How big is it?  Is it waterproof?
Quality:  How bright is it?  How sharp is it?  Can I drop it?
Cost:  What does the buyer consider expensive?

These three factors act against each other.  If you want higher quality, it’ll cost more or be less convenient.  If you want convenience, the quality will be lower and cost higher.  You want cheap?  It’ll be ugly and fuzzy.

So what balance of the three factors will sway this person’s dad?  It depends on what matters most to him.

Personally, I would expect a 24-120mm lens to cost about $1,700, be f/2.8 throughout the range, and have little significant distortion.  A $350 lens of that focal length is probably fairly dim (f/4-f/5.6?) and probably exhibits some distortion and/or chromatic aberration.

You want cheap?  It’ll be ugly and fuzzy.

— Proverb

While I personally would dismiss the cheaper lens out of hand as not being what I would consider “solid,” he might dismiss the more expensive lens as being not worth the price.

So my typical answer, which firmly establishes me as a credible source, is:  “I have absolutely no idea.”

Only he can know whether it’s a good balance of cost, convenience and quality, and that will probably only come from shooting with it for a while.  In some cases a soft, distorted lens can look better than a sharp one; it just depends on the application.

One way to make the decision might be to look at sample images from the lens, and another would be to go to a camera store and shoot some images with the lens.  The final way would be to learn a bit more about what that technical jargon in the reviews means and make an educated guess.  And in the end, one lens probably isn’t going to cover every situation, despite the claims of the manufacturer.

So I’m sorry to disappoint, but I can’t tell you which camera to buy.

Oh, and the camera above?  It’s a Nikonos 3 – great for shooting underwater and kinda, well… cruddy on land.  Again, it’s all about compromises.

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