How Week

Some answers to your How questions.

Original: 7/18/2010 on front page

How Many Lenses Do I Need?
July 22 (commentary)--
"Dear Thom: Nikon currently lists 76 lenses on their Web site. How many of them is it realistic to own? I've got the money. Should I collect all 76? Signed Nikkor Fanatic"

Dear Fanatic: The economy is hurting, so buy them all, preferably through 76 different dealers. But first you need to figure out how to carry them all. Signed Thom.

This is a tough question to answer and an easy one. Let's start with that seemingly joking "how are you going to carry them" comment.

Seriously: how many can you carry? The average pro tends to carry perhaps five lenses (14-24, 24-70, 70-200, couple of fast primes), and supplements those from time to time with a handful of others when an assignment specifically calls for it (200-400mm, 16mm fish, macro lens, PC-E lens). But even the basic five lens kit (add 24 and 85 f/1.4) is 10 pounds of optics. Add two pro bodies, some flashes, some support gear, batteries, etc., and the pro is already carrying 30 pounds around with them.

So right up front we have the wanna-versus-will thing to deal with. Will you actually carry 30 pounds of gear around with you? The answer for a majority of folk is no. Which is why they buy some or all of the top set, then add some lenses for "those times when they don't want to be burdened." So they buy a 24-120mm f/4 and a 70-300mm f/4-5.6 (3 pounds), or a 28-300mm (1.5 pounds). And they end up using those almost all the time, because there's rarely a time when they don't want to be burdened.

But two lenses and three pounds produces a compromise: no fast apertures. So they start trying to sneak in some fast primes at a pound+ per. Next thing you now they're almost back where they were. So they notice that a third party lens is lighter and decide to pick it up. Have we hit 76 yet?

You'll note that I've been using an FX example. So now that mythical user takes a closer look at DX and says "I'll pick up a lighter DX system for those times when I don't want to be burdened." And low and behold, we lose a pound here and there. Maybe the top end DX kit weighs in at 12 pounds instead of 20 (leaving off the tripods and flash, which are going to be about the same weight no matter what). (And by the way, this is one of the reasons why I constantly harp about missing DX lenses: you can't go from the basic high-grade FX kit to a basic DX kit in Nikon's lens lineup.) So now our user has 10 to 11 lenses, and is still complaining about weight. Should we check out m4/3?

One thing that keeps happening in this downsizing is that photographic compromises are being made while trying to achieve a flexible system that you'll carry around with you all the time.

And there-in lies our true answer: do you know what you're trying to do photographically? Do you understand the compromises and are you willing to make them? For 90% of the photos you take, what do you really need and use?

Many people chase lenses like they chase pixels. Because they don't know what they're trying to achieve, they keep buying more lenses hoping that by having a "complete arsenal" that they'll have the right weapon handy for every photographic possibility. Then they leave most of those at home when it really does come time to go out and shoot.

I mentioned this before, but a good basic enthusiast's kit is really five basic lenses: mid-range zoom, telephoto zoom, wide, normal, moderate telephoto fast primes. With those five lenses and a couple of accessories (e.g. extension tube, teleconverter, etc.), you can do 90% of what you need to. Some very well-known pros got by with less. We can achieve that basic list in Nikkor FX: 24-70mm or 24-120mm, 70-200mm, plus 24mm, 50mm, 85mm primes. We can't quite achieve that in high quality with Nikkor DX: 16-85mm, no perfect telephoto zoom, no fast wide prime, 35mm, and 50mm primes.

I'd tend to stick with that answer, though: you need five lenses. You can stay with the basic enthusiast kit or modify it slightly to fit your specialty needs, but that gets us back to the do you know what you're trying to do photographically question. If you do, you don't need me to tell you how many lenses to get. You already know. You might want my opinion about whether X or Y is the better choice for Z. That's fine, and I'll try to do a better job at answering that question on the site in the coming year. But you already know how many lenses you need, and probably have them already.

There's a side note to the lens chase/collection issue: some people think that lenses will make their photography stand out: "If I shoot with an X and everyone else uses a Y, then my images will be better." Well, no. They might be different from what you've done before, but there isn't a lens you can buy on the market that hasn't been used to death by some pro seeking to make a style statement. For example, the full-frame fisheyes (10.5mm DX, 16mm FX) are now a mainstay of mountain bike and extreme sports photographers because it changed perspective from the usual stand-offish telephoto renderings and made someone's images stand out. But now everyone's doing it, so it looks "normal." Don't fall into the trap of thinking that "lens = style." A lens is just another tool. You define your own style, and lens choice is only one small part of that.

So let me close with some questions for you:

  1. How many lenses do you own?
  2. How many of those lenses produce 80% of your images?
  3. Do you have the best possible lens(es) for #2?
  4. Will a new lens change #2?

And because I'm not grading in my usual tough way today (extra credit if you know why), here's the answer sheet:

  1. No more than six.
  2. Two or three.
  3. Yes.
  4. Usually not. It will if the answer to #3 is no. It probably will if the answer to #1 is 1.

How Do I Keep Up?
July 21 (commentary)--
"Dear Thom: I've only got a couple of hours a week to devote to photography, but it seems like I can't blink and things change on me. How do I keep my head above water?" Signed DrowninginTechnology

Dear Drowning: don't fight the current. Swim across it and find an eddy. Enjoy the rest before trying to get further upstream to spawn. Sincerely, Thom.

It's now 12 years post-D1. In that time we went from a modal, 2.7mp camera whose batteries died quickly to a highly functional 24mp camera whose batteries last for days. Photoshop has been through at least five versions, and even Nikon's Capture is on it's third major revision (but see next story ;~). Memory cards went from 1GB being huge to 1GB being almost a throwaway. Many of you now have terabytes of image data. In short, it's been a constant stream of new, new, new, better, better, better, bigger, bigger, bigger.

I don't know about you, but I'm tired just watching that parade marching by.

So there's a really important question embedded in that constant progression of technology: how do you keep up?

Well, let's get the most important part of the equation out of the way first. Remember that D1h you shot with 10 years ago and occasionally sold two-page spreads to Sports Illustrated with? Well, it still takes the same pictures. It didn't get pixel rot or faded Bayer filters and the shutter curtain didn't get moth eaten. It still takes mighty fine 2.7mp images (assuming you cared for the camera properly and have a fresh battery). Cameras don't get worse with time. Your perception of how they perform gets worse with time.

Those shiny new toys are always beckoning. New, better, bigger. You're conditioned to want that new-fangled camera (lens, flash, tripod, whatever) because the Marketing Gods have so ordained it and have spent years mind-washing you.

Let me remind you of something: in 1995 most of us were maxed out at ISO 800, and even that looked like dog excrement most of the time. Our film didn't stay flat, it got scratched by random things (including bad processing), diffraction was a real and dreaded acuity robber, chromatic aberration was permanent, and we had virtually no control over post processing unless we also had a darkroom that we kept up to snuff (which meant water at perfect temperatures and distilled, to boot). Yeah, things were that bad. Yet we still shot great images and sold photographs to publications, and those publications looked darned good most of the time.

Do you need to keep up with cameras? Not really. I actually learned that from Galen back in the mid-90's. He got a new F5, used it for one shoot in Fiji, got tired of replacing 8 AA batteries all the time, went back to his F4. He got a new F100, used it on one shoot for Backpacker for a matter of minutes before it started early rewinding his film, borrowed mine for the rest of the shoot, then went back to his F4. True, those cameras didn't have sensors in them. But the same was true for film. Once you found something that worked for you, you just bought a refrigerator full of bricks of it and shot it over and over. So what if Fujifilm or Kodak came out with New and Improved Velprokodaektachrome?

Things are a little different in the digital world, but not a lot. As I've written before, it probably pays to upgrade your camera every two generations or so. Less than that and the gains are minimal: you'd be better off spending the time, money, and energy on improving your skills. (To those that say "but my competitor now has a SliceDiceMultiMegaPixel camera I need to compete with I say this: if you're selling your camera to your clients, you're not a very good photographer. You should be selling your photos to your clients. Yes, I know some clients say they want more pixels or absolute state-of-the-art. But you know what? They don't reject a McNalley image shot on a D3 or a Krist image shot with a D90. Why? Because they're insanely great images, you dolt!)

So stop spending four hours a day on dpreview and the rumor sites and B&H trying to figure out just what the latest widget is and how many of your children you'll need to sell to afford one.

What I see is a lot of people chasing rather than planning. They chase more pixels. They chase higher ISO. They chase more MTF. They chase a new Photoshop layer ability. They chase, chase, chase, always looking for the easy fix. New, better, bigger will deliver that last thing they need to be successful, and they're sure of that.

But you know that's not really how it works. The successful plan what they need next and know why they need it and when they'll get it. All they have to do is wait for it to appear. That's it. No need to spend 100 hours a day wrapped up in Twitter/Google+/Facebook/Flickr/ looking for it. I'm pretty sure if you know what you're looking for it will be obvious to you when it appears.

So ultimately, the way you keep up is that you plan. If I've got a camera that's a generation old or less, I should be working on my skill sets: shooting and post processing. I know that I need at least X more pixels (and that's a big number) or Y noise or Z feature for me to even consider something new, and I really don't need it for awhile so I'm in no hurry to jump on anything that comes along that's close but not quite there.

Because here's the thing: if you keep using up all your 10,000 hours learning new camera, new software, new workflow, you're becoming an expert at change, not an expert at photography. Last time I checked, my D2x still takes pretty awesome landscape shots. Last time I checked, my D2Hs still shoots indoor basketball just fine. More to the point, by devoting my time, money, and energy on shooting and post processing skills, both would be generating better pictures for me today than they did four years ago. Let's see, four years times 40 hours/week = 8320 hours. I'd be a long way towards being an expert using that equipment.

One Point About Hours
July 20 (commentary)--
It isn't just spending 10,000 hours (see next story), it's how you use those 10,000 hours. Most of those who excel had mentors for much of that time. But even without mentors there's still this: you have to be 100% self-critical and 100% no-BS about where you stand during those 10,000 (and beyond!).

You will fail for many of those 10,000 hours. Maybe not big failures, maybe only intermittent failures, but you will fail. I believe failure is good. Failure tells you something about what you don't know or see and gives you a place to start working. Now, some of that is my Silicon Valley upbringing. Failure is a rite of passage in Silicon Valley. Indeed, venture capitalists often tend to prefer those that have failed. As long as they're self aware about it.

When you fail you must do a number of things. First, you have to admit you failed. This is a bigger hurdle for most people than they think. The natural position is to just get defensive. When it becomes clear that that won't work, they'll try to point to a positive small bit in an otherwise big failure. Or worse still, point to someone or something else as contributing to the failure. No. You failed. Acknowledge it. Accept that your mentor, your co-workers, your advisers, your investors, your peers, your friends, your family, or whoever is telling you that it failed have a clear and reasonable view that you failed. Accept that even if you think something about what you did worked. If you can't accept the failure notification, you can't get to the next thing: analysis.

What exactly did you fail at? How big was the failure? What could you have tried differently? What paths did you reject in doing what you did that you need to go back and re-examine? Make sure you absolutely understand why others are judging what you did as a failure (if this is a self-judged failure, make sure that you're right!).

Finally: fix failures before moving on. If you keep failing at getting focus and acuity spot on, for example, it makes little sense to try to improve your post processing skills. You'll be fighting your previous and continuing focus failure in the pixels you're trying to nudge and improve. You don't build successes by trying to stack something on a failure.

So, if you spend 10,000 hours just doing the same things over and over and failing in the same ways, you won't become an expert. Find a mentor or peer to help keep you focused. Push yourself to fix things as you discover they're broken. Build on successes, not failures.

How Many Hours?
July 19 (commentary)--
"Dear Thom: I just got my first serious camera. How long until I can shoot like a pro? Signed FuturePro."

Dear FuturePro: Longer than you think. Signed Thom.

As you might have figured out, this is "How" week, where I'm tackling some of the how questions I get in my In Box. This particular question is a tricky one, as there are hidden bits and pieces as well as a not perfect answer.

The not perfect answer is the 10,000 hours rule, which comes from studies by Anders Ericsson,, and was discussed at length in Gladwell's recent book, Outliers. The 10,000 number actually comes from something like "gifted performer...before they win international competitions," so it is setting a very high bar, basically one of top performer. Obviously, not all pros are top performers, they're just better and more consistent performers than most (but not all) amateurs.

Still, I think most people underestimate just how much time it takes to really achieve very high levels of competence at something. 10,000 hours is five years of full-time work. Hmm. A truly dedicated college student who figures out what they want to do by the end of their sophomore year isn't going to achieve that by the time they graduate. Which is one reason why they get entry level jobs: they need more time. But often not a lot more time.

In photography or videography these days there's a double-edged problem: you not only have to learn what to do in the field, but these days you need to usually have competence at the computer, too. You might have to put in a large number of hours shooting and post processing/editing. In other words, become expert at two things. One of the dirty secrets of a few pros is that they don't spend their time at the post processing/editing side. They either have employees that do much of that work for them, or someone else in their organization that does it. Thus, they can spend their time concentrating on and becoming an expert on the capture.

I don't think it's surprising that the incoming wave of high-competency photographers tend to split into two groups: the young and the old. The young usually have had cameras in their hands for most of their life, early on decided that's what they wanted to do, and spent huge portions of their time practicing at it. They come out of their schooling with high passion and closing in on those 10,000 hours. All they have to do is keep those two things moving. Keep the passion alive, and keep practicing.

At the other end, we've got folk who often have flexible professional jobs, a reasonable retirement account, and post-children free time. They know how to spend their time wisely, aren't distracted by 100 possible hobbies, and build that 10,000 hours regularly right into retirement, where the hours pile up even faster. They have the means, both financial and time, to do accelerated learning. My only caution to them is that you can't take long breaks from it. You must shoot and process regularly, even if it's only for a few hours a week. That's because the corollary of the 10,000 hour rule is that you can't maintain the expertise with 0 hours. It's sort of like running: you can take days off here and there, but once you take more than two weeks in a row off, you're generally going to step far backwards in ability and have to rebuild.

It's the folk in between, trying to juggle the raising of a family and working 40+ hours weeks at a non-photo job to try to make the mortgage payment that have the biggest problem with the 10,000 hour rule. They just don't have 10,000 hours. Not in five years, not in ten years, often not in twenty years (which would be ~10 hours a week).

You shouldn't read into that last statement that you can't get better at photography. But the question was "shoot like a pro." That takes real commitment of time, resources, and energy. (As a side note, the four basic things you have at hand are money, time, energy, and skill. You can often use one or more of these to help generate one that's missing, like money and time to generate skill, which is exactly what we're discussing here. But time is the tough part. You can borrow money. You can get motivated in some way to increase energy. You can develop skills. But you can't invent time you don't have and you can't buy more at The Apple Store or Walmart or

There's one other important other side note to this discussion: don't get flustered. Overnight successes take at least five years, at least in my experience. And that correlates with the 10,000 hour rule. You will have ups and downs in that time. The downs can get you emotionally down and rob you of much needed energy, which in turn may cause you to not commit more time.

It's a really tough hill to climb. But it's not Sisyphean. You can get the rock to the top. Just don't expect to do it quickly.

How Much Better?
July 18 (commentary)--
"Dear Thom: if the upcoming D400 really has twice the pixels of my D90, how much better would my pictures be if I upgrade? Signed PixelChaser."

Dear PixelChaser: if you have to ask that question the answer is that your photographs will either be about the same or possibly even degrade in quality. Yours, Thom.

It seems like forever that I've been answering this question. I, too, at one time thought more pixels always meant more better. Of course, my first digital camera was .3mp (that's point 3, not 3). I don't mean to be mean in my answer, but in practice, it's proven to be mostly accurate. If you don't know what it is you're chasing and why, you won't achieve it.

Serious shooters basically fall into one or both of two categories: (a) They are pushing every last pixel they've got into very large print work; or (b) they are looking for low-level pixel integrity because they realize that gives them more and better choices in post processing. If you're in one or both of those categories you know exactly what more pixels should provide you.

Category (a) wants pixels of at least similar integrity to what they've got, just more of them so they can print bigger. If they think their current camera is maxed out at prints of 24", then they want the same abilities, but with enough extra pixels to print 36". In the end, many of the people in this category end up doing the same thing they did with film: they go up size. If they were shooting DX at 12mp, they go to FX at 24mp. If they were shooting FX at 24mp, the move to MF at 40+mp. The reasons to do this basically are the same as they were with film: the bigger capture area comes with a built-in advantage when you're basically chasing maximum print size: it decreases the magnification (all else equal). We've had a good run with digital sensors, where today's 16mp DX is arguably giving us similar or better pixel integrity to the old 6mp DX sensors, but it's often quicker, easier, and more productive to just buy a bigger camera.

Category (b) wants their images, usually of some (relatively) fixed size--perhaps they shoot for a magazine--to look better. This is a trickier situation than (a) because "better" can come in a lot of different forms. For instance, if you were shooting inside NBA arenas, low light performance improvements were more interesting than more pixel improvements, which is why the D3 and later D3s won so many converts. If you're shooting at a fixed size (13x19" from your desktop printer, magazine page for your photo editor, 8x10" print from a lab, etc.), more pixels on their own doesn't always give you more better.

To understand that last remark, you need to understand all the meanings we usually cram into the word "resolution." True resolution is measured in line pairs per millimeter, which is a linear measurement. (True resolution is also a chain of resolutions--sensor, lens, etc.--but that's out of the scope of this article.) Thus, the linear change in pixel count is important:

3mp: 2000 pixels on long axis
6mp: 3000
12mp: 4000
16mp: 5000
24mp: 6000

I've been a little loose with those numbers because it makes it easier to see the thing I want to relate. When we went from our 3mp D1 with 2000 pixels on the horizontal axis to our 12mp D3 with 4000 pixels, we got a probable doubling of resolution (all else equal). We don't get that when we go from our 12mp D3 with 4000 pixels on the horizontal axis to a D3x with 6000 pixels. Instead, we get a 50% increase. Now consider the 16mp D7000 to 24mp D400 leap: 20% increase. Different sources come up with different figures, but I generally use 15% as being the minimum necessary for most people to see any difference in resolution, so the D7000 to D400 is just barely above that bar.

Meanwhile, we've got other factors potentially fighting us. One of the reasons why some of those old 3mp and 4mp images look pretty good these days is that we weren't really recording diffraction impacts. Diffraction wasn't hitting far enough away from an individual photosite to get well recorded into adjacent resulting pixels. It's another area of debate (there are many in this discussion), but some of us use 2x the diagonal of the photosite for the "diffraction impact" mark. Below that, diffraction doesn't significantly lower resolution test numbers. Above that, it does. So as photosites have gotten smaller, diffraction impacts have gotten more visible.

I used the term "pixel integrity" earlier. What are the components of that? A pretty long list, actually, of which here are just some:

* diffraction impacts
* microlens spillover (another light adjacency issue)
* Bayer consistency
* AA filtration level
* consistency/linearity of ADC
* electron migration
* on-board noise leveling (neighbor pair assessments, etc.)

The list goes on and on.

I have little doubt that the camera makers will continue to push forward for both the (a) and (b) shooter. We'll get higher pixel counts, and we'll get a continued devotion to better pixel integrity. The reason is simple: without those things, it gets pretty tough to sell a new DSLR at all. Let's face it, from the D5100 on up Nikon's DSLRs have a pretty long list of features that'll let you do most anything you need to, plus these cameras run from pretty good performance at all things they do to excellent. So without sensor improvement, it would take a big change (did I hear someone say CPM?* ;~) to sell any of us a new camera.

Nevertheless, even though we're getting strong gains in (a) and (b) in sensors, the return is getting lower with each generation. We're very near the point where it should become obvious to everyone that the real choice for tangible gain is to go up size.

*For those with short memories, CPM is my short-hand for communicating, programmable, modular, which is what I've been suggesting for several years now that our cameras really need to be. | Nikon | Gadgets | Writing | imho | Travel | Privacy statement | contact Thom at

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