I have a digital SLR—a five-year-old Nikon D7100—but I haven’t been using it very much over the past few years. Blame that on the iPhone, which has a camera that while nowhere near as good or as versatile as a digital SLR, is good enough in most cases, and has the advantage of always being (a) with me and (b) connected to the Internet. Which meant that I was able to get shots I’d otherwise miss, not having my camera with me, but it also meant that convenience and spontaneity often trumped image quality. The Nikon came out for deliberate acts of photography—such as last summer’s solar eclipse—which lately haven’t happened very often.

I think that might be changing. I’ve been picking up the Nikon more and more lately: to take pictures of nearby garter snakes, the trilliums growing on our property, and the birds that pay us a visit. So I’ve been blowing the dust off the photography-centred parts of my brain and getting myself back up to speed on using the big gun.

My D7100’s sensor has always been spotty—literally—so I’ve finally bit the bullet and bought myself a sensor cleaning kit. Cleaning a camera sensor has always sounded a bit scary, but I’ve done my homework and it doesn’t seem intimidating. Worst case scenario, if I screw it up I’ll have to get it cleaned professionally. But success means I can shoot stopped down without having to clone out visible spots.

And for the first time in eight years, I’ve bought new lenses—two of them, both upgrades to existing kit:

  1. A fast normal prime lens, the AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm ƒ/1.8G (Amazon), to replace my old Sigma 30mm ƒ/1.4, which was always too soft and seems to be coming apart; and
  2. A longer, faster-focusing telephoto zoom lens, the AF-P DX Nikkor 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-6.3G ED VR (Amazon), an upgrade to my old Nikon 55-200mm lens.

The 35mm lens was so I could get better, sharper photos in low-light conditions—conditions the iPhone generally did poorly at. Here, have a cat picture:

AF-S DX 35mm, ƒ/2.8, 1/60 sec, ISO 900.

The telephoto zoom is basically for bird photography: at the new house the trees and feeder are further away, and I needed more reach. Here are some of the first photos I took with the lens:

It certainly does the job, but the additional reach is not necessarily accompanied by additional image quality. It needs lots of light at 300mm, and I had some trouble with the dappled light and shadow in the photos above (trying to get shots of black birds didn’t help either). There’s some diffraction effects to be had, bokeh is terrible, and it’s not nearly as sharp as, say, the 105mm ƒ/2.8 macro lens. It’s also less than half the cost, so what the hell. I don’t have the budget to go for better glass, and I can hardly complain about image quality when I’m shooting through window panes.

(Note that AF-P lenses like this 70-300mm lens are not compatible with older Nikon digital SLRs. Mine is five years old and is not 100 percent compatible: I can’t, for example, turn vibration reduction off. Before you buy any AF-P lens, check to be sure your camera is compatible.)

In any event, gear is overrated. These lenses will come in handy, and geeking out over stuff is fun, but the proof is in the shooting, and regardless of what I’m shooting with, I’m looking forward to getting out and shooting more.