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Hobbyist looking to go pro


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I have a Nikon D90 with the 18 - 105mm kit lens (dx) and am wanting to move to pro level equipment. I know I need to invest in glass, but am not too sure what I should be investing in body wise. This will be a part-time venture rather than my sole source of income, and my focus will be lifestyle type portraits, and no weddings. Down the road my hope is to have a place big enough to have a home studio and at that point I'd like to get into boudoir.  I'm guessing the D90 isn't considered pro level enough to really make a go of this, so would love to hear your recommendations for upgrading my camera body please?

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Honestly, my comfort level is around the 2K mark, but I have a large settlement coming my way and could go higher. I have a good tripod and a Nikon speedlight, and a Nikkor 18 - 55mm lens (freebie from work 'cuz someone dropped it, but works fine, but I rarely use it), so I definitely haven't invested in good glass, and want to add a 50 or 35 mm prime for sure. I have a disability that leaves me limited in how much equipment I can lug around to the kinds of locations I have in mind, so off-camera lighting isn't worth investing in until I'm in a position to set up a studio.

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OK...$2000. That's tight.

Right now, if you want to stay DX, you could get a D7200, which is the replacement for your D90. Or if you can wait a few months, the D500 should be out, which would be a step-up for you. It has a lot of the features and focusing system of the new Nikon D5. From the videos that I've seen, it's almost like the kid brother of the Nikon D5. Either way, you will have a lot more freedom with higher ISO settings, as the D90 really starts to look bad at around ISO 800. If I had to choose between the D7200 or D500, hands down I'd get the new D500. Unfortunately, that body by itself should be around the $1999 mark, which completely blows your budget for lenses.

Lenses...you have all the consumer-grade kit lenses that come with bodies and that's going to increase your costs on this upgrade path. The upside is, you do not have any idea on what you are missing in terms of image quality. There is a big difference with the lenses you have and the pro-grade stuff. I was once like yourself, kit lenses, all those consumer grade zooms...yadda-yadda-yadda. I then made the mistake of borrowing a friend's Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 and have been spoiled ever since. That one lens alone has made me spend over $8000 in gear, and I'm still not done. LOL!!

Side-story: I needed to upgrade from my Nikon D40, which come to find out was a "bridge camera body," meaning it was meant to be outgrown. So with limited funds, I found out that Best Buy was selling Nikon D200 bodies for around $650. The D300 had just come out and they were liquefying stock. "Great!" I thought. I can't afford to spend $1799 on a Nikon D300 and I really need to get away from my D40. So I took the plunge. 

Big Mistake.

Now, while I liked the D200 and it's external controls and switches, it really topped out at ISO 640. Anything higher and it was Noise-City. Even Nikon tried to "justify" the noise by adding a blurb in the manual!! LOL!! So I lived with the D200 until I was able to upgrade to the D300s a few years later. My point to this side-story? While it's important to have a realistic budget, it's even more important to not try to save money by "settling," because at that point you are just wasting money and throwing it away. If I made things work a little longer with the D40, I probably could have saved myself $650 and used that towards the D300s, which I'm still shooting with...Weddings and all.

OK, I told you that story to help tell the main one a little better. I'd just bought the D200 and was going to go on a Photowalk. A friend offered to lend me her Nikon 24-70 f/2.8G to try out on my fancy new camera body. (Ah...the smell of new gear.) So I mounted the 24-70 and started to take photos. The thing wouldn't focus. I freaked out...was there something wrong with my camera body? Did I break her lens? I unmounted and remounted the lens and took a few shots. I looked in my camera's settings and made the change to "only take the photo when it's in focus" to enabled. The camera produced a few more shots. I thought the lens STILL isn't focusing. "Why is the camera taking photos?" Frustrated, I decided to manually turn the focus ring until the entire image was blurry in the viewfinder and pressed the shutter button half-way.

ZIP!! Image was in focus, almost instantaneously! My jaw dropped. It turned out that the lens focused so fast compared to my 18-55, the damn thing was waiting on me! That sucker locked on like a heat-seeking missle. No lens hunting back and forth. No waiting. Boom! In focus. "Holy Sh*t!" I said to the fellow Photowalker next to me. I had no idea of the speed difference in focusing, it was addicting. So I did the rest of the Photowalk and then went to take a few photos of the stuff that I normally would, just to have a side-by-side comparison when I went home.

Now, by this time I was in hard 4PM light with no shade. Not the light that produces great photos, but I was burning daylight, so I shot any way. I then checked my histogram and then looked for the blown-highlights. The histogram was really even and when I went to check for the blown areas...aka, "The Blinkies," there was hardly any. In fact, there were none on some of the photos. It turns out that the Nano-coating on the 24-70 was doing it's job. Combine that with the better glass and my images were instantly better compared to shooting with the 18-55. So there is a BIG DIFFERENCE and if you experience this, your wallet will feel the pain. Like I said, this one lens turned me into a Nikon Pro-Grade Lens Snob.

So my point is try to get your lenses lined up first, THEN get the body. Keep in mind, that you will need to choose your path, either stay with DX or upgrade to FX. Either way, you are going to spend around $4000, because right now you have all consumer-grade stuff. Well, the D90 is considered "Advanced Amateur / Prosumer," but we are splitting hairs at this point. A D500 is $1999 and lenses...they are going to cost you money too. 

So I guess before we go on, are you looking to upgrade to FX or stick with DX? Because at this point, you really are starting over from scratch and are at a fork in the road.

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The D90's limitation with ISO has been driving me nuts! I'm laughing at your story about the focusing time, thanks for sharing!  I definitely feel like I'm starting from scratch. I had to stop photography altogether for about 4 years and despite almost a year of reviewing and learning, I've been letting fear hold me back from doing this professionally on my own, and I'm not sure how much I'm letting myself get hung up on the equipment side due to this fear. I'm frankly scared to invest more than 2K into something that I'm only going to be able to do as a part-time business, and at the same time am feeling like I probably should be prepared to invest more in a business venture. So a long winded way of saying that you hit the nail on the head about "settling". For portrait work, fx is going to serve me better long term, right? So .. invest in some nice fx glass now and save for an fx body? 

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FX is really the future. Nikon has been making half-assed attempts when it comes to the DX line. We have been waiting on the D300s replacement, the D500 for a really, REALLY long time.

Combine that with the lack of DX lens choices that are of the "Professional Grade" type, and the ones that are out there, tend to be expensive. The downside is, I have a really hard time recommending a Pro DX lens that's $1400+ because DX lenses are ONLY designed to work on DX bodies. Sure you can mount a DX lens on a FX body, but that will throw the FX body into "Crop Mode" and really cripple the camera. You do not want to put a DX lens on a FX body. It's just not worth it. Trust me.

Here are some ideas:

Nikon D810 with 24-120 f/4 VR   -- Right now Nikon has a sale going on, and it's $1100 off @ $3299.

Nikon D810 (Body Only)  -- $2796.95

The D810 is a fine camera, and I'm so tempted to purchase one. It's Dynamic Range is killer in the Nikon Line-up, meaning you can pull so much out of the RAW file. It's even better than the D4 line of cameras. I know of several Music Photographers that shoot rock concerts and festival events with a D810. So for Lifestyle and Portraits, this is the camera to do it with.

Pros: Dynamic Range, Rugged Body, QUIET! QUIET! QUIET!! The shutter is amazingly quiet on this thing. Nikon really got it right this time.

Cons: The 36MP and the large Raw file sizes that are produced because of it. So you'll have to upgrade your storage and at least have 16GB of RAM on your computer. So not only are you buying a new camera and lens, but probably upgrading/replacing your computer to handle the D810 files.

Nikon D750 with 24-120 f/4 VR Lens -- Same sale is going on and this combo is $2296.95. Not much more than your budget of $2000.

Pros: The D750 is also a fine camera. It's great for the folks like yourself who are making the jump from their D90 bodies to FX. It's very much like the D5xxx line, possibly the D7xxx line. The screen tilts out so the camera will allow you more options when it comes to angles.

Cons: I really like this camera, but if you are rough on your gear like I am, I would be careful as the weather sealing isn't robust as the D810. For those wondering what do I mean rough? I was whale watching in rough seas, got slammed by a 25 foot wave which drenched me and my camera. I ended up pouring bottled water all over my D300s and 70-200 lens, so that the salt would wash off. I photographed a Wedding a week later with no issues with the same gear. I wouldn't try that with a D750. LOL!!

That said, you might do well with a D750 for your 1st go-around in FX, since you are already shooting with a D90, it won't be that much different handling-wise. Plus the High-ISO capabilities with this camera...they are better than a D4s!

So you really have two choices at this point with FX. Either a D750 or D810. Unless you want to go the used route in which case I'd recommend a D700 and some lenses. More info on the used option in the next comment blurb.

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OK, used option with FX. This is one to consider. You could get a used Nikon D700 from KEH.com for $879. Combine that with a few FX lenses and it gives you a starting point.

Prime Lenses that I recommend:

Nikon 85mm f/1.8G - $476.95.

Pros: I own this lens. It's one of Nikon's best kept secrets as it's really sharp. Sharper than the bigger brother, the 85mm f/1.4G and A LOT cheaper. Great for head and neck portraits, like headshots. 

Cons: While it's sharp, it has "Decent Bokeh," not the "Legendary Creamy Bokeh." For that, you'll need to spend $1700 and get the 85mm f/1.4G.

Here is one of my favorite shots that I took with the D700 and 85mm f/1.8G.

Here comes the Bride

For something affordable and wider, consider the Nikon 28mm f/1.8G lens. The cost is $696.95 and is more affordable than the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G, which is a GREAT lens but expensive. Then there is the old Nikon AF 50mm f/1.8D lens, which is a staple item in practically every bag. It's cheap @ 131.95 and it's sharp.

So lets recap:

  • D700 for $880
  • 85mm f/1.8G for $477
  • 50mm f/1.8D for $132
  • 28mm f/1/8G for $697
  • Plus a few CF cards, since it only has a CF slot.

Estimated Cost: $2186, plus CF cards like this one or this one. You might need a reader, such as the Sandisk Card Reader that I recommend. So call that $200 for accessories. Rounded off, it's $2400 for a used kit, with new prime lenses. So either way, you'll need a budget of AT LEAST $2500, preferably more.

Remember, the average cost to switch to FX is between $4000-$4500. Once you have to start adding lenses to the FX body, the price just shoots up. This is the main problem with DX lenses. If we did a D810 body with the three prime lenses, plus adding $200 for CF Cards, we are at $4302.95. See how this works? In reality, you need $4000 instead of $2000 if you are going to buy NEW gear. That said, if you were to purchase a Nikon D750 Body only and combine that with the three primes, we are at a $3303 Price Point, about $1000 less. Since the D750 takes SD cards, you can use the cards you already have.

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Now for other options:

This is the Nikon 24-70 f/2.8G lens. This lens is responsible for MY serious case of N.A.S (Nikon Acquisition Syndrome) also known as G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). I'm getting this lens next month. No, I'm not getting the newer 24-70 VR version as the new version isn't as sharp for the way I shoot. It's honestly a bit soft and Nikon can't seem to sell them. In fact, they just dropped the price on the newer version to help boost sales. I'm still buying the original 24-70 f/2.8G.

This lens needs to be on your RADAR. I have a love affair with mine. Her name is Bertha. She is big and heavy and expensive...and worth it. She is the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8G VR II lens. Great all-around lens. Can shoot portraits and all sorts of things with it. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND GETTING ONE, WHETHER YOU ARE SHOOTING FX OR DX. This lens gets sh*t done and I can't imagine not having one.

If you were getting a D500, I'd recommend purchasing a used Nikon 17-55 f/2.8G DX Lens. It's the "24-70" for crop bodies. The only downside is that it's a DX lens, so if you ever did decide to go FX, it would be best to sell it. Currently, they are around $650 at KEH.com. So if you did get a D500, and a 17-55, you are looking at $2650, conversationally speaking.

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So those are your choices. In all of them, you will need to increase your budget. The kit with the most options and primes that is the cheapest is the D700 with primes. Followed by a new D500 and used 17-55 f/2.8. As soon as you go higher, the cost jumps over the $3000 mark all the way up to $4500. (Rounded off.)

Photography isn't cheap. LOL!! We haven't even talked about getting a CPA, learning Quickbooks, paying quarterly taxes and all the other sh*t that comes with being a "legit" business. That's a whole other thread.

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Final thoughts: Instead of spending $4500 on a D810 and lenses, I'd get the D700 kit, with a 85mm f/1.8G and a 50mm f/1.8D. Get an Einstein 640 light for $500 and a Zack Arias One Light Kit for $100. You might want to add a Savage seamless paper kit for $115. If you want to get fancy, buy one of these posing stools for $100.

The cost for all of that: $2305. Then find a small studio space. You just need two walls and a floor. Commercial rent can be cheap. You should be able to find a place for $300 or so per month. Start with headshots. People need headshots for all sorts of things. From acting gigs to dating profiles. They are quick and easy. I seriously need to take my own advice and do them myself. Believe it or not, there is more profit in headshots than shooting weddings. A lot less stress too. 

So there you have it. Either blow your money on a D810 setup or get a D700, some lenses and lights AND a studio for about the same cost, or slightly more.

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One more thought. 

I'm sure there are plenty of folks out there that have a love affair with their D600 / D610 and are wondering why I'm not talking about them. Here are the main two reasons:

  1. The D600 and its oil on the sensor problems. The shutter mechanism's lubricant is notorious for getting on the sensor. So much that you have to send it to Nikon for them to clean it, unless you had a local place to do a wet cleaning. After a threat of a class action lawsuit, Nikon finally caved and admitted there was a problem. I think they would either offer lifetime free cleanings (you pay shipping) or they would replace the shutter if you bitched enough. The other solution was to replace it with a D610. Of course, my knowledge is a bit dated but my opinion stands: I wouldn't touch a D600, even if it was given to me for free.
  2. The D610: This is an "OK" camera, but like the D600...it's an ENTRY LEVEL FX body. Think the FX version of the D3300. I'm not forking out $1500 for anything that is considered "Entry Level." It's meant to be outgrown. I'd much rather put that $1500 towards something better than blow it, get frustrated 12-18 months later and be forced to upgrade to something else. In fact, I know several D600/D610 users that regret their purchase and wished they spent the extra money to get a D750. 

So there you have it. That's why I didn't list the D600/610. I'm a big fan of "Buy it Right - Buy it Once." 

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