Thom Contemplates Exile to a Desert Island

The classic question, with a Nikkor wrinkle.

Original: 5/6/2009
Update: 5/7/2009
Your responses are here.

You're certainly heard the question before: if you were going to be stranded on a desert island, what one (CD, book, person, food, movie, etc.) would you bring with you and why? (For the record: off the top of my head my choices would be Samite's Stars to Share, Updike's Rabbit Trilogy, a woman who can tolerate me [whoever that may be], ice cream, and Out of Africa.)

But this is a photography site, and you want a photographic question and answer, I'm sure. The cheater in me says there's an easy answer: just bring a Panasonic LX3 or a Canon G10--there's likely to be plenty of light most of the time, after all. I won't be wearing much in the way of clothing, so I don't have big pockets or a big bag to stuff things in as I walk around, and I sure as heck don't want to see what kind of stripe a camera strap makes on my otherwise beautiful tan, so no heavy DSLR.

Yes, I know, this is an intellectual exercise, not an actual emergency. So I need to be a little less facetious about my answer. Actually, I'm going to give you four answers: one DX lens, a simple DX kit, one FX lens, and a simple FX kit. The one-lens versions are easy enough to explain: after all, the basic question is "what one X would you bring." But for photography, stranded on a desert island I'd want just a wee bit more flexibility, so I'm going to give a slightly hedged answer with no more than three lenses, as well.

The DX One Lens Adventure
There are several ways to tackle the question: best possible lens regardless of restrictions, most flexible lens, etc. That traditional "most flexible" approach would probably lead me to the 16-85mm VR, as it's both excellent at what it does and flexible. But that's not what I'd choose. For me, it would be a tossup between the 10.5mm DX fisheye (surprise!) or the 70-180mm Micro-Nikkor (surprise again!). The first of the possible choices is just a fun lens. I sure intend to have fun on the island, and both the challenge and sheer joy of shooting with the 10.5mm would keep me occupied for quite some time. Coincidentally, earlier this week I came across pictures from a visit I made to Las Vegas for a convention. Guess which lens dominated my camera for the week? Yep, that 10.5mm. And you know what? Not only was I engrossed in trying to get great images out of that lens, I think I got some very unusual ones that are exactly my style. On the other hand, I might be spending a lot of time looking at the same things on the island, so the Micro-Nikkor seems like the more logical candidate to me. In a pinch, I can just back up in the surf out to the breakwater to take that picture of the wide beach. And a telephoto would come in handy if there's a polar bear on the island, as in Lost. Don't want to be shooting it with a 10.5mm.

You're probably wondering why I'm not contemplating anything in the middle-focal range. Simple: I find the mid-range a dead zone for my photography. "Normal perspective" does little for me. Photography is about making choices, and I like to exaggerate the things I do choose to make it more obvious what it is I'm trying to say. Exaggeration comes at the ends of the focal range, so that's where you'll find me.

The DX Three-Pack
Obviously, getting to bring three lenses opens up a lot of possibilities. Two of those choices are going to be easy for me: that 70-180mm Micro-Nikkor is an automatic, and the new 10-24mm Nikkor is likely to be my other primary choice. Those two lenses pretty much will cover everything I usually would shoot. So what's the third lens? Well, it's an overlap: the 24mm PC-E. It just lets me do things I can't do with the 10-24mm.

I suspect some of you would pick a different third lens. And I'd guess that it's either a very fast prime in the middle range or a really long telephoto (trying to get a close up of that mermaid swimming off the breakwater, are you?)

FX in One
This is the most difficult of the four answers to come up with. It's a little easier for me, as I'm simply not going to pick a mid-range zoom, ever. Not that Nikon makes one that's good enough to be considered other than the too-large-for-its-usefulness 24-70mm f/2.8. I think it's a cop out to just say "16mm fisheye or 70-180mm Micro-Nikkor", which is basically the FX equivalent answer to what I said for DX. Certainly the 70-180mm is once again on my short list, but the 16mm for some reason doesn't seem quite as fun (nor is it quite as sharp as the 10.5mm DX equivalent, which may be playing into my thinking). No, I think the 24mm PC-E is going to be my choice this time.

Don't ask me why I'm changing my choice for FX from the equivalent to what I chose for DX (though obviously, I had the 24mm PC-E on my DX shortlist). Something about shooting the big frame has me thinking how to really exploit and maximize every pixel, I think. And that tilt on the 24mm PC-E is going to help me with that.

The FX Threesome
I'm going to mimic the DX choice a bit here, but I'm really going to reveal what's usually in my small Urban Disguise bag: the 14-24mm, the 105mm Micro-Nikkor, and the 70-300mm VR. Yes, that's what I put on my D3x most of the time (the 24mm PC-E is a close fourth). As my eventual review of the 14-24mm will reveal: it's a 5 out of 5, a 10 out of 10, a 100 out of 100, an n out of n. It doesn't matter what scale you rate it on, it's just a near flawless lens. Too bad about the "no filters" bit. The funny thing is that the 14-24mm Nikkor is a better lens than the Zeiss 18mm or Zeiss 21mm. Yep. A zoom outshoots the high-end primes. Really. Why wouldn't I want that on the desert island? You're probably surprised with the 70-300mm VR. If you don't need f/2.8, then you don't need the 70-200mm. Indeed, you'll like the 70-300mm at f/5.6 or f/8 better on an FX body. Close your mouth, that dropped jar makes you look stupid. Really. The 70-300mm has very good edge to edge performance and doesn't really start to fall down in any way until you start to approach 300mm. And even then, it'll do in a pinch. The 105mm Micro-Nikkor gives me the macro I need on the island.

And no, I'm not kidding. This last kit is not an intellectual exercise, at all. It's my go-to lens kit right now. I'll supplement it with the PC-E lenses or a long telephoto, when necessary. But for the photography I tend to do, I don't find that I need to stray from those three lenses very often. Put me indoors at an event, and yes, I'd change the telephoto I carried (to the 85mm f/1.4D, 135mm f/2DC, or 70-200mm f/2.8 depending upon the event). But that's about it.

Your Turn
I've got some bad (or good) news for you: I've just banished you to the island. In 100 words or less, email me your three lens choices and why. Your responses are here. | Nikon | Gadgets | Writing | imho | Travel | Privacy statement | contact Thom at

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