My Best Photography Buys of 2019

My Best Photography Buys of 2019

In 2019, I switched mounts, tried out some new gear, and built a new editing setup. Looking back at the year, there are some pieces of equipment I’d buy again in a heartbeat, while others weren’t even worth the cost of return shipping. 

Nikon Z 7

I’ve shot Nikon for years, having gotten started with a D90, but this year, I switched (mostly) off the F mount. While I switched now for a number of reasons, including a great trade-in offer, this was mostly a positioning move for the future. Looking at the industry, it’s clear that almost every manufacturer feels that their future lies in mirrorless, and I think that for 99% of photographers, that’ll be true.

The Z 7 itself has been a mostly lateral move from my D800 series bodies. The body itself didn’t offer any massive advantages over the D810 and D850, but instead was the best mirrorless feature set for me. In the past, I shot extensively with a Fuji X-T1, and I knew that I couldn’t go back from the performance of full frame. With many years of experience using Nikon’s control setup and menus, the virtually identical setup was also a great fit, compared to the significantly different controls of Sony and Canon.

The body did offer a slightly higher megapixel count, along with a smaller size that was still comfortable. Cutting the bit of weight from the body itself wasn’t huge, but in combination with the next entries on the list constituted a major improvement in handling.

That mount is really what set this camera apart for me.

Overall, the camera itself wouldn’t make it onto this list, except for one crucial phrase: Z-mount. The native mirrorless mount for Nikon’s Z cameras really present the single best argument for mirrorless’ existence. The lenses that have been released so far constitute the best of their class, while being cheaper, lighter, and more ergonomic than their F-mount counterparts. Whether it's flange distance and mount diameter or something else, this mount has spawned some excellent lenses.

Nikon Z 24-70mm and 14-30mm

If you asked me a few years ago whether a Nikon kit lens would be one of my favorite pieces of gear for the year, I’d have said no way. Nikon’s F mount kit lenses ranged from nothing special to not very good, and for years, I put up with what was their top of the line midrange zoom. My copy of the 24-70 f/2.8 for F mount wasn’t particularly sharp, had loads of chromatic aberration, and just didn’t meet the standards set by a supposedly pro lens. On top of all that, my generation of lens lacked VR.

In Z mount, however, the story is entirely different. The Z 24-70mm is phenomenally sharp across its range, with low levels of CA and well-corrected (in software) vignetting. Extremely portable and just more comfortable to hold in comparison to the F mount zoom, the Z version is better in every way for what I shoot.

When I switched to Z, the deal presented was unbeatable. For only a little more than the cost of upgrading to the newest 24-70mm, I could upgrade my lens, camera body, and get an FTZ adapter. That this lens is the “kit” midrange zoom speaks to the performance of lenses across the line, with the newer Z f/2.8 further outperforming the F mount cousins.

Sure, you can drag a camera and tripod through the jungle, but it's a lot more pleasant at half the weight and all the quality.

All of those same reasons apply to the Z 14-30mm in comparison to the F mount 16-35mm and 14-24mm. Greater performance, at a lower price, with a smaller size that better pairs with the mirrorless kit.

While Nikon is still missing a Z 70-200 f/4 or similar, I was able to fill out my essential lens lineup with significant upgrades in just a few months after release. The lineup has continued to shape up, including the release of some well-regarded primes, and I'm hopeful to see where it goes in the next few years.

Sabrent Rocket Nano

My Sabrent Rocket Nano is a 1 TB external SSD, but it also comes in 2 TB and 512 GB. Performance is great, with files zipping along at 800 MB/s+. Importantly, it was a great value in comparison to offerings from Samsung and others, with mine costing under $100. Lastly, it offered a native USB-C connection.

This was the year of mirrorless for me, but it’s also been the year of USB-C. While the connector has been around for a little while, it’s been this year where it has started to become the predominant connector in my equipment. From my camera to headphones, to my keyboard and laptop charging cables, more devices have gone USB-C.

The biggest change involving USB-C for me was in my laptop. I switched to a Macbook Air for travel. I’d been getting away from trying to process in the field, instead just needing a way to backup files. To that end, the Macbook is perfectly competent, if not for its tiny stock SSD. I find it surprising that Apple can even find NAND in small enough sizes for their miniscule 64 GB phones and 128 GB laptops; fortunately, other manufacturers aren’t as consumer-unfriendly.

For its ability to store thousands of shots, easy connection compatibility without an adapter, and quality industrial design and performance, the Sabrent Rocket Nano has been the perfect travel computer accessory for this year.

Logitech G502 Lightspeed

I’ve always been a fan of gaming mice for use when editing. I feel that the higher-quality sensor and software support for macros make it a lot easier to edit compared to a more standard mouse. For the last couple years, my mouse of choice has been the Logitech G502. The latest version, the G502 Lightspeed, offers the design I’ve grown to love without the wires. Unlike other wireless mice, there’s nothing more to say: it’s a wireless mouse with none of the downsides. The rechargeable battery lasts for many days, charges in a coffee break worth of time and adds no weight (over the already somewhat hefty stock G502). 

Macro buttons are a huge benefit in post. Whether it's a simple keyboard mapping or complex action, they come in handy.

Logitech’s drivers aren’t flawless, but you can basically set the mouse up and uninstall; just make sure you’ve set the profile on the mouse to offline mode to avoid an annoying speed-ramp issue before the driver has started.

One last gotcha is the price, at about $150 versus the $35 of the wired version. Sitting above basically every other Logitech mouse, including their flagship oddly enough, the mouse is very expensive. For me, cutting the cord was worth it, especially for a tool that I use for many hours each day, but don’t count out the wired versions.

Conclusion

Overall, my favorite buys this year weren’t revolutionary. I didn’t switch to medium format, go back to analog, or commit to editing on an iPad. What these instead represent to me is a better match for my uses.

The Z 7 is all the quality and even higher performance than I had in my F mount kit, for about half the weight. It’s also going to be the path forward for Nikon, representing what I think will be a smart move when it comes to the investment in lenses.

On the post-processing side, not much has changed. Computers have gotten faster (honorable mention goes to my 3700X processor upgrade), while some standards have changed, but I’m still editing Nikon raw files in Lightroom. Small conveniences, like fast, portable storage, as well as a new mouse, make these tasks easier.

Going into the next year, I don’t expect any major purchases, but instead have some of my budget allocated to more travel, so I can actually use this gear, which is really what it comes down. These tools have made for a better experience in the field, but don’t replace actually being out there.

How about you? What’s your favorite photography-related purchase this year?

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22 Comments

Tom Reichner's picture

Alex Coleman wrote:
"Going into the next year, I don’t expect any major purchases, but instead have some of my budget allocated to more travel, so I can actually use this gear, which is really what it comes down. These tools have made for a better experience in the field, but don’t replace actually being out there."

You really nailed it with this last paragraph, Alex!

This is the very reason why I've gone 6 years without upgrading my camera body. Each time I consider a purchase of gear, I think of those dollars, and think of the photography trips I could take with that amount of money. Then I ask myself, "What will result in more quality wildlife photos - the better gear, or the travel?" Almost every single time, the answer is that traveling to readily accessible wildlife will yield more quality images than having a camera body with improved focus or ISO capabilities.

For the price of a Canon 5D Mark 4, I can spend an entire month in the Rocky Mountains photographing Elk, Bighorn Sheep, Whitetail Deer, and Mule Deer. This will result in several dozen excellent images, even with my old Canon 1D Mark 4. If I upgraded to the 5D4, I would not be able to make this trip - there would be no funds remaining. So ...... what good is a great new camera body if I am stuck at home where there are hardly any wildlife subjects to shoot?

I must admit, I do envy those who have enough money for both premium gear AND travel. But I will never be in that position, so for me it is always going to come down to a choice between one or the other.

Alex Coleman's picture

I find the same thing with landscape subjects. While I'm fortunate to have a lot of great subjects relatively nearby, I'd still love to travel to more destinations. To me, that was one great thing about switching to Nikon's mirrorless - for a very slight cash outlay, I got a body and two significant lens upgrades, which made for a great value.

Oliver Kmia's picture

Interesting, I really like the 14-30mm f/4 lens. I almost switched to Nikon last year but the lack of quality wide angle lens with filter thread turned me down. Whereas Canon has plenty of quality wide angle lenses with filter thread, Nikon only proposes the mediocre NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4.

I don't consider the NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4 to be mediocre. What is it about the lens that find to be mediocre?
Using filters on the wide end of that range is going to have its problems no matter what lens, but I can usually work with it.

Oliver Kmia's picture

Hi Jason,
I just find it weak in terms of sharpness, especially outside the center area and stopping down doesn't really help.

Stuart Carver's picture

There are loads and loads of people using that lens and getting awesome images though, I find a lot of this ‘lack of’ or ‘weak’ when people talk about lenses is very subjective. A quick google search on every single lens that’s ever been made you will find people saying it’s not sharp, or can’t focus, or has abberations etc.

Tom Reichner's picture

Often, people's reviews on a lens stem from their use of the images. Some folks may only print at 16 by 24 inches, so what is plenty sharp enough for them may not be sharp enough for someone routinely printing at 40 or 50 inches wide.

Alex Coleman's picture

I think another thing to consider is the interaction between other factors like field curvature, AF calibration, lens alignment, and the pixel count on the body. There's too many variables to make one blanket statement about any lens and have it hold for every user.

Maybe you got a bad copy. Mine, that I purchased refurb, has been very sharp. I am using it on a D750, so maybe on a higher-megapixel sensor you'd be more concerned? I don't know. I also have a Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 (bought used) and the 16-35mm is a much sharper lens when comparing my copies.
I didn't really consider the big 14-24mm f/2.8 because cost and weight. I don't find myself needing f/2.8 anyway as I am often using a tripod for those sorts of conditions. The 16-35mm f/4 is my favorite lens according to me and according to Lightroom.

Alex Coleman's picture

My experience mirrors Oliver's, but to a lesser extent. The lens is fine, but never impressed me with regards to sharpness and contrast. At f/4 and with a filter ring, the 14-30 is a lot stronger of a performer.

Oliver Kmia's picture

Thanks for all your feedback. It's very personal, in my case I used it with the "unforgiving" D850 to produce 8K timelapse. Found the Canon versions (f/4 and f2.8) to be much better. Perhaps I had a bad copy.

Alex Coleman's picture

Not sure if it's a case of sample size or different manufacturing tolerances, but it seems that people are finding less "dud" copies of the Z series lenses, compared to F mount. That matches my experience just over a few lenses, too.

Stuart Carver's picture

I’m guessing technology plays a part too, perhaps the machinery used to both design and manufacture the lens has moved on since that 16-35 was created, or even the way the glass is laid out etc. I’m sure Nikon have a lot riding on this Z system so they need to ensure everything is stellar.

My point above relates to the fact that there are lenses I own and use, and zoom in to study the images, that are perfectly sharp. Yet people on the internet call them soft, rubbish, weak etc, namely the Fujifilm XF10-24 wide angle lens.

I sometimes think (and I’m not calling anybody out here specifically) that pixel peepers zoom in to 400% expecting to see human hairs displaying details and when they don’t, suddenly a lens is weak.

I always chuckle at Adam Gibbs, widely regarded as one of the best Landscape Photographers on the planet, who is using the 16-35 and 24-120 Nikon lenses on a D850.. I’m certain he makes large prints yet apparently both of those lenses are crap and only good for amateurs or snap shooters if you take notice of forums etc. I’d say from a Fujifilm perspective Andy Mumford is another prime example.

Alex Coleman's picture

Both the 14-30 and 24-70 are a big upgrade over their F mount counterparts, and they really present the strongest value proposition for Z cameras.

Fristen Lasten's picture

Nice images Alex!

Stuart Carver's picture

Alex, what situation would you take advantage of the macro feature on the mouse? That’s something that interests me as I’d like to make my editing workflow more efficient.

Alex Coleman's picture

I have a number of the keys mapped to macros or keystrokes - it'll be different based on your needs.

Consider mapping complex combination that you use frequently. LGS, the drivers that Logitech provides, allows you to map to each of the buttons and even by program, so my setup in Lightroom has P for flagging, G for grid, and D for develop, allowing me to hop between the two major panels and cull, all from my mouse. In Photoshop, I have some frequent layer actions mapped to it, like merge visible and create new layers.

Stuart Carver's picture

Cheers Alex thats really useful, will have to look at picking one of them up.

Alex Coleman's picture

Yeah, give it a try! If you're just looking to try it out, the G602 offers macro buttons and a quality sensor, as well as AA battery powered wireless, but at a huge discount to the G502 ($30 vs $150). The missing features are all aimed at competitive gamers, so they won't be relevant for general computer use.

Stuart Carver's picture

Ah nice cheers, definitely didnt want to be spending that much on a mouse haha. at the moment im must using the trackpad on my macbook so could do with a bit more precision.

My Fuji x10 probably the most fun camera I have owned in many years