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MY CURRENT SYSTEM AND WHY I CHOSE IT
Vandit Kalia
August 2006

For the longest time, I have avoided listing my system online. A big reason for this has been that doing so serves little useful purpose other than simply telling other people "look how many cool toys I have." I prefer to share my photos instead - both those pertaining to the trips we run, as well as personal photo projects, such as Darjeeling in the Mist.

However, while helping a friend decide which direction to take with his fledgeling camera system, I realized that a lot of the decision mking process - such as which lens to buy, which camera to buy, etc. - can be best illustrated by example. So I figured that I'd share what I use, and more importantly, why I've chosen it instead of the other choices out there. Hopefully, this will help you decide what gear is best for your needs.

Bodies

  • 1D Mark2
    The 1D Mark2 is a joy to use - with its blazing autofocus, great handling and robust build quality. Initially, I had considered it a bit of an indulgence, as, given my shooting approach, the 20D's autofocus and frame rate is more than enough for most of my shooting - even wildlife. However, with time, I've realized that for wildlife and action, it really is hard to beat a Canon 1 series. The body has indeed justified itself.
  • 20D with vertical grip
    I've always liked the mid-range doube-digit Canon bodies, as they offer pretty much all the features needed by serious photographers at a very reasonable price. The 20D is no exception - excellent image quality, very customizable and 5 frames per second make it the best value in the Canon range. I upgraded from the 10D as soon as this body came out, as the improvement in start-up time was too useful to ignore, and have been very pleased with the decision.

    The 30D, while containing quite a few incremental improvements, isn't a big enough upgrade to convince me to switch (although, were I buying new, I would get the 30D for its larger buffer). And the newly-announced 400D, while a great entry-level buy is limited enough in functionality and inerface to be a step down in usability. The extra 2 megapixels are significant enough to compensate.

Lenses

  • Canon 17-40/4L
    For general shooting, this is my most used lens. Whether I use a 1.6 crop body or 1.3 crop body, this is the focal length I use the most for landscapes, sreet, travel and architecture - pretty much everything except wildlife. This lens replaced a Tokina 19-35/3.5-4.5 which did yeoman's service for me for a few years, and with which I was very happy. My only reason for upgrading from the Tokina was that I wanted my most-used optic to be the best optic I could find.

    I bought this lens instead of the Tamron 17-35/2.8-4 even though by all accounts these two lenses are very close in performance simply because this lens gets a lot of use and I wanted the extra build quality & faster AF of the Canon.
  • Sigma 10-20/4.5-5.6
    I find that my natural vision is far more suited to wideangle lenses than moderate telephotos. As such, an ultra-wideangle is my second most important lens for general shooting. A 16mm field of view (in 35mm terms) is indeed hard to manage, but this is a fun lens and stays on my camera quite a lot.

    I bought this lens instead of the Tokina 12-24/4 and the Canon 10-22. The extra 2mm on the wide angle of this lens makes a significant difference on a 1.6 crop body - which tilted the odds against the Tokina. Plus, I use this lens underwater, where wider = better. That made it easy to pick the Sigma ahead of the Tokina, despite the attractiveness of the faster, fixed aperture on the latter. Compared to the Canon - it required a lot of pixel-peeping to try to figure out which of the two lenses was better and to me, that is a clear indication that I should pick the cheaper lens and save the money. Speed of focus on a wideangle lens is not so important and I'll be using this lens stopped down on a tripod (for landscapes) - so a smaler max aperture is not so important either.

    The Sigma is well built, and offers excellent image quality, and I am very happy with it.
  • Tamron 28-75/2.8
    This lens is another example of going with performance/$ over brand. The Canon 24-70/2.8L is a great lens, but three times the price, and heavier. However, when it comes to image quality, I don't see any significant difference in quality between the Tamron and the Canon. I bought this lens to upgrade from my old Canon 28-105/3.5-4.5, a very underrated and high-quality lens when used stopped down to f8.

    On a FF body, the 24mm of the Canon would justify the price premium to me. On a 1.6 crop body, however, both lenses are too long on the wide end and so, no matter which you choose, you'll still need a wider-angle lens (such as the 17-40 or 10-20).

    After using the Tamron for about a year, however, I'm beginning to change my opinion. While the image quality is very good, the AF is slower/noisier than what I'm used to. I have always been able to work around it without any problems, but it just throws off my shooting a little bit when the lens doesn't focus when I expect it to. That is enough to make me consider selling the Tamron and getting a Canon - most likely the 24-105/4, which would pair very well with my upcoming switch to full frame.
  • Canon 100/2.8 USM macro
    I bought this instead of the Tamron 90/2.8 macro simply because the price was close enough and Canon gave me warm fuzzies (this was a while ago, when third-party manufacturers were still regarded as less than stellar). Since then I've found that a lot of the Tamron 90/2.8 samples are as sharp and with possibly better bokeh. The difference isnt worth enough to switch, but were I buying again, I'd look into the bokeh issue more closely and consider the Tamron as an alternative.
  • Canon 70-200/4L IS
    I have a confession to make: this is my least-used focal length. That alone makes me disinclined to spend a lot of money on this focal length. I either use it for landscapes (tripod mounted and stopped down) or carry it around to complete my "general photography kit" (along with a 10-20 or 17-40 and a 28-75). So either way, light wins out over a 1-stop gain in aperture of the f2.8 version. I'd retain this lens even if the 2.8IS version was the same price.

    Optically, this lens is a gem and given its low price and light weight, it is going to remain in my possession. I upgraded to the IS version from the non-IS version, something that took a lot of internal convincing. Initially, I was not sure if the premium of the IS lens was worth it. However, that 4-stop IS did seal the deal, as quite a few times I've found myself pushing the limits of what I could handhold with this lens.

    Also, I don't use this lens for wildlife - if I did, I might consider the new Canon 70-300 IS zoom as an all-purpose inexpensive tele. But given what I shoot with this lens, its focal length and aperture are more than adequate for my needs.
  • Canon 100-400/4.5-5.6L IS
    This is my bread-and-butter wildlife lens. It is versatile, it focuses reasonably fast and image quality is excellent - forget what you read on the forums: in real world applications, this lens is a cracker. The zoom is absolutely essential when shooting wildlife in the denser forests of India where sightings can cover a broad range of distances. And it is light enough to carry around all day (for example, on walking safaris) .

    I was considering the Sigma 170-500 and 50-500 - in the end, the lack of USM motor on the cheaper Sigma, and lack of IS and a max aperture of 6.3 on the Bigma ruled both those lenses out, and I have been very happy with that decision. That being said, I do prefer fixed-aperture zooms and would definitely appreciate something faster. I'd sell this lens for the Sigma 120-300/2.8 in a heartbeat, were it not for the fact that the Sigma lacks IS. The 120-300 is even sharper, faster and not appreciably heavier (unlike the Canon 300/2.8 monster) - perfect for shooting the low-light conditions when the most exciting sightings happen.
  • Canon 300/4L IS
    I bought this lens with one primary goal in mind - shooting birds in flight. In the Keoladeo Ghana NP heronries, this is the perfect focal lens for getting shots of painted c ranes, egrets and herons as they fly around their nests and feed their young.

    The 400/5.6 is a faster-focusing lens, but I find that that this lens focuses fast enough for my needs. I have to admit that the presence of IS played a critical role in choosing this lens over the 400/5.6.
  • Canon 500/4L + TCs
    Now that I have it, I don't know how I managed without it. I use this lens mostly with either a 1.4x TC or a 2x TC, and the extra reach has opened up significant horizons in my shooting. The lens is a monster, and does require some planning in terms of setup and positioning - I missed a shot of sparrows mating while I was wrestling to set the lens + 2x TC onto my tripod; my friend, who has the Bigma, merrily clicked away and got very good shots. Doh.

    When you get into this range, there really is no comparable product out there. IS on a monster lens is useful even on a tripod - especially if the lens is being used with a TC. And Canon is the only one makes super-teles with IS. End of story.
  • Canon 50/1.8, Canon 24/2.8 and Canon 85/1.8
    Mistakes, atleast for me. I last used the 50/1.8 3 years ago, and the 24/2.8 has been used 1 day in the last 2.5 years that I have owned it. I am not a "primes" person, what can I say.

    Still, these lenses are inexpensive enough that I plan to retain them and use them for personal projects, such as a photo project on the Andaman Islands, which should hopefully result in a coffee table book at some point.

Accessories

  • Heads: - Arca-Swiss B1, FOBA Mini Superball, big Wimberley and theSidekick
    If there is ever one product I have bad luck with, it is with ballheads. I got the FOBA on clearance at Cathay Photo in Singapore, and while it is quite a sturdy unit in terms of ability to support long lenses, its build quality leaves a lot to be desired. Screws fall out, the knob keeps coming loose (I finally superglued it into place). In frustration, I then bought an Arca Swiss - and in the year I've had it, it has been sent back twice to the manufacturer, halfway across the world. That's over $200 in shipping for a $400 product. Arca's customer service has been responsive, but I'd really like a working ballhead. Next time, I'm buying a Really Right Stuff unit, and being done with this whole mess.

    On the other hand, the Wimberley has been nothing but a wonder to use. Both the Sidekick and the big Wimberley are just as effective in the field - the only difference is that setting up the Sidekick is a bit more finicky and requires a basic level of attention to ensure that the clamp is securely biting onto the plate.
  • Tripods: Gitzo 1548, Gitzo 1228 Mk2, Manfrotto 055
    Not much to say really. Getting here took a torturous route, but I got there in the end. The 1228 is sturdy enough to support my 500 at a pinch, but for the big lens, I use the 1548. It is probably overkilll for the 500/4 (the 1325 is the ideal tripod for that lens), but I have a 600/4 in my destiny (I used the Force), so I'd rather have a tripod that is future-proof.
  • Flash: Canon 580EX, Sigma 500 Super, Canon 380EX, Sigma ring flash, Better Beamer
    I rarely use a flash for anything except fill flash - usually with the Better Beamer flash extender and with exposure compensation dialed in. I bought a 580EX because I couldnt get the Sigma ST500 Super DG anywhere. When it was time to get a second flash for some multi-flash work, I got the Sigma - and it does everything the Canon does, and at a lower price. The 380EX is a leftover from quite a few years ago, and now travels mainly with my G6 or attached to my second body. I am planning to get 2 more strobes for remote flash work, and they are all going to be Sigmas.

    I bought the Sigma ringflash for macro photography after my positive experience with their 500 Super - and it has been a charm as well. Spot-on exposures every time. The money I saved over the Canon MR-14EX ringflash has bought quite a few beers instead.
  • Bags: Mostly Lowepro: Photo Trekker, Mini Trekker, Off-Trail 2, Nova 4, Stealth; S&F belt and harness system; Slingshot 200, Computrekker; one Tamrac messenger bag; a generic camera vest
    Most people don't get my obsession with bags. But then, most people havent had 2 knee surgeries, and don't clamber up and down the Himalayas. I need different bags when I am flying with all my gear for a wildlife safari, when I am going on a solo hike in the mountains, when I am going on a fully-supported expedition or when I am merely pootling around town.

    I like Lowepro - they make top-quality bags with a lot of attention to details (lot of people swear the same thing abour Tamrac as well). When I get a Lowepro bag, I usually find more features than expected after I start using it, and a lot of little touches which indicate attention to detail... and that is always nice. And they really cater to the active, outdoor photographer. Given the fact that every Lowepro bag I've had has exceeded my expectations, I go to their website first every time I need a new bag.

    I've recently had a problem with one of my Lowepro bags, and they were amazingly prompt and responsive in helping me find a solution. One of their corporate VPs personally Fedexed me some bits'n'bobs that I needed while in the midst of covering an event, at no charge. Compare to, say, Gitzo, who makes even contacting them virtually impossible.

    Of course, people who shoot differently may find their needs better served by other manufacturers. Think Tank Photo is a popular brand these days.

At this point, my system has evolved to the point that the only thing I am missing are some specialty lenses - a fisheye, a tilt-shift and possibly, another supertele (the 600/4). If it appears as though I am very satisfied with my gear, I am. That is hardly surprising, however - if I weren't happy with any piece of kit I owned, I wouldn't still have it.

Of all the gear I own, the one item I always wish I could keep upgrading is my own photographic ability. As I've said many times in the various articles here, that is almost always the limiting factor in my photography..

 
     

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