Such a simple question… How much should I expect to spend on a pro-level 35mm digital camera system? To be able to answer that accurately, you have to know what cameras and lenses that system will contain to cover the broadest set of photographic situations. With the introduction of the Nikon D800, the jury is finally in. For the best “kit”, buy the Nikon D800 and the “holy trinity” of Nikkor (Nikon) pro-zoom f/2.8 lenses— the 14-24mm, the 24-70mm, and the 70-200mm VR. Add a a few other essentials (listed after the table below), and you have the ULTIMATE base configuration. The cost of that? Sit down… it ain’t cheap.
|Nikon D800 Camera
|Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 AFS Ultrawide Zoom
|Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 AFS Mid-range Zoom
|Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 AFS VR Telephoto Zoom
|Total Cost, Camera + Lenses
Yeah. You should budget a whopping $10,000 for the ultimate system. You will want to use the remaining $710 to secure a decent tripod and head, a remote shutter release, a camera case, and a polarizing and UV filter (77mm). You should be able to get your dream system and your essentials for under $10,000. (NOTE: this is an available light setup and does not include any lighting or strobes other than the tiny one built into the D800).
Of course, as in all technology-based hobbies, there are a few commonly desired things that can push you over this budget…
If you like macro photography, you will need the 85mm Nikkor Micro lens for around $470 (or, if you want to get up close from far away, about $1,400 for the 200mm Nikkor Micro).
If you are a sports photographer, you might be unhappy with the 4 frames per second you get from the D800 and will have to go with a faster pro model (if so, tack on an additional $3,000 for the D4 camera, but recognize the D4 actually has lower resolution at 16.4MP instead of the D800′s incredible 36.3MP). If you are a wildlife or sports photographer or a paparazzi who has to have a fast, long lens… well… you should budget another $8,000-10,000 for a great super telephoto lens (see next paragraph for a reasonable less-costly alternative). So, yeah, a pro wildlife photographer’s system would be closer to $23K (or more), but are you going to start shooting for Nat Geo anytime soon?
For most photographers, $10K should set you up almost perfectly. Even those who think they need a really long telephoto might be surprised what they can achieve with this setup and a $450 teleconverter. With a 2X teleconverter (get a Nikkor or you will be sorry!), you can extend that 70-200mm out to 400mm, and remember that with a 36MP camera like the D800, you can crop down by half and still have an 18MP equivalent image. In fact, you can just shoot in DX mode and you get an automatic 1.5 crop factor and an 18MP image. That takes you out to an effective 600mm range and saves you nearly $10K that you might have spent on a Nikkor 600mm lens.
If you want to shave $1,000 off the investment, consider the 80-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor AFS lens instead of the 70-200 VR lens. I own it, and the 80-200mm is actually a slightly sharper lens for half the price! The only thing you really give up is the VR (vibration reduction), and that means you will have to use a tripod or monopod more often with the half-price lens. Frankly, at full zoom, I would never consider shooting without a support even with the VR lens, so the decision was a no-brainer for me. The 80-200mm non-VR lens is an incredible bargain, especially when you consider that it actually produces superior images!
Now, if you are looking for other bargains, don’t look for savings in lenses. Buy Nikkor glass because it just can’t be beat for quality (unless you want to spend a fortune on certain Zeiss lenses). Nothing will affect the quality of your work more than the quality of lenses, so trying to “cheap out” on lenses will always wind up costing you more in the long run.
If you are building the “dream system” incrementally, you can always start with none of the “holy trinity” lenses at all, but get the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G prime lens for around $220. Hell, shooting a prime will probably help make you a better photographer, to boot, and it’s nice to have a fast prime lens for those really dark places (you can spring $400 for the f/1.4 50mm instead and get perfectly acceptable shots in nearly total darkness at 6400 ISO!). Then, just add the bad-boy lenses as you can afford them. In order of usefulness, I generally would say leave the 24-70mm to last (assuming you have a 35mm and/or 50mm prime lens already). Then, depending on what and how you shoot, either add the long 70-200 (or cheaper 80-200) or the wide 14-24mm f/2.8 lens next. Don’t waste your money on off-brand lenses (e.g., Sigma, Tamron, et al)—you will regret it because it seems that everyone winds up replacing the cheaper alternatives with the Nikkors eventually anyway.
Finally, you may think I am a Nikon bigot and that is why I never even mentioned Canon. Not at all! In fact, if I were a serious videographer or a sports photographer or photojournalist, I might have bought into the Canon system to begin with. Canon has a far more established dedication to video, and they have a larger selection of fast long lenses. Canon also allows shooting at extremely high ISOs and gets an overall slight advantage for shooting usable low-light exposures. When you look down at a sports field, you will see tons of big white lenses down there on the sidelines. Those are Canon shooters. You can build an equivalent system using Canon equipment for about the same money as the Nikon system I have recommended… with a few notable shortcomings (at least at present). The Canon autofocus system is not as fast nor as good as Nikon’s (although the 5D MkIII made considerable strides at addressing this issue). The 14-24mm ultra-wide zoom from Nikon is one-of-a-kind, and the closest Canon glass is not even in the same universe in terms of edge-to-edge sharpness, lack of distortion and color accuracy. And, Canon does not have a 36MP sensor (yet), and the quality of the Nikon hi-resolution sensor is just unparalleled (you can literally compete with medium format cameras with the D800).
I prefer Nikon over Canon mostly because of what I use a camera to shoot, but I also rate the Nikon superior in build quality. Nikon cameras and lenses are built like tanks, using lots of metal (instead of plastic) to take abuse, and are consistently rated more durable than the more plasticky Canons. Nikons feel and sound more substantial (for whatever that’s worth), and Nikkor lenses always have an ever-so-slight advantage over their Canon counterparts when it comes to uniform sharpness, bokeh, color depth and accuracy. Some would argue that the difference is imperceptible, but I disagree. As for cost… some Nikon items are more expensive; for other items, Canon’s are a bit pricier. All-in-all, they are priced closely competitive with each other.
It was not as easy to define a dream system prior to the introduction of the Nikon D800 camera this year. With that groundbreaking leap forward, Nikon has finally made it possible to say that, for the money, this is the best dSLR setup available today. Clearly, this setup is for pros and very serious amateurs, or for those who have more money than they know what to do with. Get this kit and you will get the best photos that photo gear can deliver for under $10K. Buy less than this setup and be forever in envy!