Why this shot? Because it was taken with a Pentax K-1000 and a Vivitar consumer zoom, and it's one of my favorite photos despite that.
I'm throwing this in after having been on the equipment newsgroups for a few years, watching the stress people go through over what they own, don't own, want to own, and so on and so forth.
So my primary message is: Stop worrying about it!
In all seriousness, if you've been paying attention to the specs on my photos, you'll notice that there is a decided lack of "professional" equipment listed. How much has that changed things?
Let's start with the bodies. There is virtually nothing that a "professional" camera body can provide that will make it take a better photo than a consumer body. Professional bodies have only a couple of advantages, and they mostly apply to the demanding world of professional photography, where a missed shot might cost hundreds of dollars. Significant changes are usually in framing rate (how many photos can be taken per second), more metering options, and weather-resistance. Some manufacturers keep certain options, such as mirror lock-up and PC connections, available only on their higher-end cameras — others make them available for many of the less expensive models. Worry about the options when you know your photography relies on them. If you're not sure how a spot-meter will impact your photography, you're likely wasting money that could go towards more film. And film will tell you, better than anything else, how to use the metering options your current camera has.
Lenses are more crucial towards the quality of the photo, and you will frequently hear advice that you should purchase the best lens you can afford. I won't go directly against such advice, but I will temper it with this: Far more of the quality of the photo depends on your composition, and extremely few bad photos are bad because of the lens.
Even the consumer lenses of today, the inexpensive zooms that often come in packages with the camera bodies, beat out the lenses of 20-30 years ago, the same lenses that allowed the capture of most of the photos we consider "classics" still. Take a look around at your favorite photos, and see what was responsible for capturing them. And think about why they're your favorite photos. Is it because the short depth-of-field made the difference? Because there's no chromatic aberration to be seen? Because the edges are sharp and don't demonstrate light falloff? Chances are, it has nothing to do with any of these. You like it because it captures the color, or expression, or the moment, or the grace, or the lines... whatever it may be. Technical perfection is not to be ignored, but it doesn't make a memorable photograph.
Photography is ripe with folklore. Things like "That 28-80 is a horrible lens" and "Zooms lack sharpness and are prone to flare" can be heard time and again. Much of it is simply repeated from a favorite source of such tidbits, from people that have never used the equipment in question. Personally, I immediately start pinning people down on such details by questioning exactly what their experience has been. If it hasn't been significant (or even exists), I cut it off right there.
And this largely has to do with the fact that my experience has, very frequently, shown otherwise. For instance, zooms being more susceptible to flare (internal reflections) than fixed-focal-length lenses? Not in my collection of thousands of photos — the worst flare I've ever gotten has been from fixed-focal-lengths, the second worst came from a protective filter on the front of the lens. Once removed, the flare was gone.
And flare is a very easy thing to control: Don't let light hit the front of your lens. Use a hood, use something to block the light, aim another way. So much for that terrible problem.
Another big thing about lenses is sharpness. You will hear about the 'tack sharpness' of such-and-such lens (usually costing from $1,000 on up) until you puke. And this might be entirely true. But in the real world, the increase in sharpness from this professional expensive lens, over a consumer lens that fits within your budget, might go as high as ten percent. Chances are, if you use the cheaper lens carefully, you won't even see five percent. Hmmmm. Compare the cost difference. Like what you see?
Best advice I'm ever going to give someone: Use your equipment carefully, and with an eye towards getting the best results. Good habits beat equipment in every way, shape, and form.
For instance, you'll notice that many of the photos taken on this site are with a Canon 75-300 zoom (and it's not even the Image Stabilized version). This is a lens with a reputation for being soft when used near 300mm. Funny, I've gotten perfectly sharp photos at 300mm (and I use some of the tightest grain slide film and examine all my shots under a 10x loupe). How was this impossibility achieved? By using a tripod and closing the aperture down to f8 or f11. Stopping down from wide open will improve the results from just about any lens. And camera movement is the number one cause, hands down, of photos that aren't sharp. By regularly using a tripod, and stopping down whenever possible, you will routinely get better results from your photography. These habits will stand behind you, always.
[Note: When I first wrote this page, there was still a duel going on from the older, experienced photographers about using zoom lenses versus "primes," or fixed-focal-length lenses. Zooms have now become so omnipresent, and improved, that these arguments have largely disappeared. But they've been replaced by the duel of consumer zooms versus "professional" zooms, such as a 28-80 f2.8 L. The page has now been changed to reflect this, as well as addressing the arguments of "primes."]
Another recommendation that I see with regularity on the forums: "Zoom with your feet". What this means is, don't use those terrible destructive amateur zoom lenses on your camera, but instead use nice, sharp, fixed-focal-lengths (occasionally called 'primes', though the debate goes on about whether this is appropriate), and adjust your composition by moving closer or further from your subject.
Horseapples. (I'm trying to keep this clean, but I feel much stronger than that).
First of all, from a nature photographer's standpoint, this is simply the largest bit of idiocy anyone could ever spout. Your subject isn't going to give you the opportunity to run back and forth to change your composition. Neither are conditions. I don't know about you, but I can't walk on water, and even if you can, I bet you can't get the tripod to stay put.
Second, a 50mm lens used up close does not produce the same depth-of-field characteristics of a 300mm used from a greater distance, and this may make a huge difference in your composition. Same with a wide-angle.
"Ah," say the FFL (Fixed-Focal-Length) advisors, "that's why you carry a variety of focal lengths. You change them as needed!"
Fine. If it makes you happy, carry five lenses instead of one. Fumble around with a lens change while asking your subject to hold that pose. Lug four times the weight, everywhere you go, on the odd chance that the composition you choose might be ruined by lens flare or by not being sharp enough to blow up to a 16 x 20.
Alternately, the advice goes to use only the fast (meaning large maximum aperture) professional-level zoom lenses, again costing many times as much and massing several times their lesser counterparts. Yes, there are advantages to these lenses, especially in low-light situations, and where getting the autofocus to lock on quickly is important. But they're exceptionally heavy, and with that added weight and bulk often comes a shorter zoom range than the consumer zooms. Which means, again, carrying another lens and switching to it when that reach is needed.
But me, I've ruined more great shots by never getting them on film than by having a lens that couldn't perform as desired. Meanwhile, many is the time that I got numerous compositions in the space of three seconds, and presented my subject in a variety of ways, by using that zoom. Yes, my lenses have some limitations; all lenses do. But I know what they are and don't expect them to perform otherwise, and meanwhile I go for the shots that I'm confident I can get.
A small note to the contrary. There's one advantage to expensive lenses that can't be ignored: A wide aperture (like f1.4, f2.8, or f4) can produce excellent isolation because of the short depth-of-field. Additionally, they allow a camera's autofocus to work in lower light, even when used with teleconverters. There's no beating this. You'll pay a lot for the privilege, but when you need it, you need it.
However, here's a small workaround to the depth-of-field thing. With any focal length, the closer the focal point is to the 'Infinity' setting, the greater the depth-of-field range, so the more likely it will be to include your background in reasonable focus. Since this is often distracting, in many compositions you'll want to avoid it. So the further you can get from using the lens at Infinity, the better off you'll be.
What this means is, get closer, and use the longest focal length you can (longer focal lengths have a greater reach before they hit that Infinity mark). Yes, I know this sounds a bit like the 'Zoom with your feet' advice I'm railing against above, but when you don't have a 300mm f2.8 lens and need the short depth-of-field, this is the best method you have available. If it works, and I just saved you a couple grand, drop me a line and I'll give you an address to which you can send your donations of gratitude ;-) .
I mentioned teleconverters above, and I'll address them here in detail. They're another item you'll often hear photographers recommend against — "They degrade the image!" If I had listened to the amount of bad press they receive and never taken the chance of buying one, there's a huge number of solid photos I wouldn't have in my stock right now (and sales I wouldn't have made).
I use a Tokina MC-7 2x teleconverter quite often, primarily on my Sigma 170-500mm zoom and my Sigma 105 EX Macro (and Sigma is a company that receives so many negative responses on forums you'd think they were made of soda glass). The Tokina is a 7-element model, a step up from the 4-element model — mildly expensive as far as teleconverters go, but less than their new Pro 300 line which is reputed to be even sharper.
While there is potentially some degradation of the image, I have yet to see it. The results I've been getting have been excellently sharp and indistinguishable (under a 10x loupe) from images taken without the TC. And in conditions where all folklore would have insisted I would get nothing worthwhile, I got some solid and publishable photos.
So what does all this mean? It means listen to folklore at your own risk. If you can't be shown the difference side-by-side by someone who has used the equipment in question extensively, you're probably better off simply ignoring it.
And again, the strength in photography lies not with the technical perfection, but in the image itself, the way you convey your vision or your message. Composition and artistic merit are far more important, and will garner far more attention to your images. A super-sharp image with bad exposure won't impress people. Learn how to use whatever equipment you have or can afford, and learn how to create a striking photo. It'll do so much more for you.
The image above is a full-frame shot taken with a Sigma 170-500 zoom at about 450mm, with a Tokina MC-7 2x Teleconverter attached (so an effective focal length of 900mm). Film was Provia 100F pushed 2 stops. It has undergone the typical treatment I use for web display — about half jpeg compression and some restrained sharpening to maintain detail during compression.
The image below is a detail from the same frame at the highest resolution of my scanner (2438 pixels per inch), no sharpening, minimal jpeg compression. Could it be sharper? Yes. How do I feel about the results? They exceeded my hopes, much less my expectations. The fact that not only do the feather patterns show distinctly, but the leaf veins as well, means that the repeated negative comments about using teleconverters with zooms has far less substance than I needed to worry myself about. At this time, I don't know if the limit of resolution is from the slide itself or my scanner.