My Camera Just Isn’t Cutting It

Last modified on January 27th, 2011

This was one of the things I was afraid of. About six months ago I decided to sell off most of my camera gear. Part of that decision was due to the fact that if I was going to go on this trip I would need more money, and my camera gear represented a significant investment ($5,000+) that I could tap into. I could always buy another camera, but I may not always be able to do a trip like this. The second was that I was originally planning on traveling with just a backpack, and there really wouldn’t be any room for a big SLR or lenses.

About a month before I left for Buenos Aires, I decided it would probably be smart to bring along a little suitcase of stuff as well. Since I’m in Buenos Aires for three months, and I have a full apartment, there was really no reason not to bring it. But now that I’m here, I’ve slowly made the decision that I think this is the way I’ll probably end up traveling going forward – renting little apartments for a week or two at a time as I go. It’s cheap, relatively comfortable, and you usually have most of the amenities from home (such as WiFi).

I have no problems with hostels (well, the ones where nobody tries to stab me that is). In fact, I originally imagined I would be staying at various hostels along the way. I may still do so, but I think they will be few and far between. Because I’m actually trying to get work done as I travel, scrambling around all day trying to find a pub or a coffee shop with internet isn’t that appealing to me, so having a home base in most cities as I travel is probably the way I’ll do it going forward.

With that in mind, there’s really no excuse now not to have a nice camera along with me, especially since this is a once in a lifetime (well, probably more in my case, but you get the idea!) opportunity.

I did bring my Canon 40D with me, which is a 1.6x crop factor DSLR. It’s a few years old now, but still fully functional. I’m at the point in my photography career where I really should have a full frame DSLR, but an entry level full frame is around $2,400 (the Canon 5D Mark II) just for the body, and I just haven’t had the extra cash to swing it thus far. In addition, I sold off all my professional series full-frame (EF) lenses, so I really wouldn’t have any lenses to use on it, other than the 28mm lens that I brought along with me.

On my 1.6x crop factor Canon 40D, the 28mm lens acts like a 44mm lens, which is fairly long (it’s slightly more wide than the typical human field of vision – which is about 50mm – but not wide enough to take in sweeping landscapes or interesting architecture). On a full frame camera that 28mm lens would once again be a 28mm field of view, which is definitely a real wide angle lens, and far more useful.

My current plan is to somehow try and save $2,000 before hitting New York City in April so that I can buy a 5D Mark II. Unfortunately at that point I still really only have one lens. So I would probably buy a 50mm 1.8 (around $100) and possibly an 85mm 1.8 as well, and travel with prime lenses. An even better solution would be to rebuy the 24-70mm f/2.8L lens, which is probably the nicest walk-around zoom lens that Canon makes. I had a used copy previously, so it would be nice to have a new copy this time around.

Unfortunately if I buy the new body and that one lens, it’s a $4,000 bill. If I buy the body and the other two prime lenses, it should be more like $3,000, but then I have three lenses to carry around.

Another option is to keep the Canon 40D and buy the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens. I hadn’t even heard about this lens until someone mentioned it on Twitter last night. It’s essentially an L-series lens (Canon’s professional line), but doesn’t have the distinction because Canon refuses to call any of their EF-S lenses L-series. But it definitely has higher quality glass and an aspherical element (which Canon uses in it’s pro-series lenses) to help reduce distortions. 2.8 is as fast an aperture as any of Canon’s high quality zoom lenses, and this particular lens even has image stabilization, which can help reduce motion blur.

The only issue is that it’s an EF-S lens. Canon’s normal lenses are EF lenses, and they were designed and made for full-frame film cameras. On a full frame digital SLR (such as the 5D Mark II), these lenses behave exactly as designed – a 24-70mm lens has a 24-70mm field of view. On Canon’s 1.6x crop factor cameras (which the Canon 40D that I own is a part of), the smaller CCD size effectively translates into a real-time cropping factor (because the sensor is smaller than a frame of 35mm film, the image that the lens projects onto it is effectively cropped in the middle). To take this into account, you simply multiple the crop factor number by the lens focal lengths. So a 50mm lens on a 1.6x crop factor body acts like an 80mm lens.

Canon decided to make a special line of lenses just for these type of crop factor bodies, and they called them EF-S lenses. The S standards for short back focus, which means that they focus onto a smaller plane. While these lenses work great on crop factor bodies such as the 40D, they are completely unusable on full frame cameras, which is why I have always avoided them.

But truthfully, it may be the best option for my trip. I can get a brand new 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens (which acts like a 28mm – 88mm lens on a 1.6x body) for around $1,000. At that point I can continue to use my 40D body, but also have a fully functioning zoom lens for my trip around the world. It’s also less of a hit in case my camera gets stolen, since the body isn’t really worth all that much now, whereas a 5D Mark II is a pretty highly coveted camera (they filmed an episode of House last season using it, since it also does HD video).

Either way, I need to do something once I hit the mainland again, as the 28mm lens isn’t working out as well as I had hoped. Compared to my old L-series lenses, it’s far less sharp, which I find annoying (especially when compared to the 50mm f/1.4 – f/1.8, which are actually really sharp lenses as well). So, I’ll definitely be making some type of purchase when I hit New York City at the end of March.

One response to “My Camera Just Isn’t Cutting It”

  1. Stv. says:

    Huh. I had no idea that’s what the “S” stood for. I always assumed it was for “stabilized”, because aren’t all the EF-S lenses stabilized? Anyway. Really thoughtful post. You’re debating the same things I am. Not sure my photography “warrants” a full-frame DSLR, but I have been wanting one for a while after borrowing one for a couple of weeks and seeing the difference.

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