Gear, and how to get Good

Gear is just gear.  I know it’s a self-referential statement that seems meaningless, but I assure you it’s not.  By gear I mean all of the tools of our trade. Cameras and lenses and lights and filters and cards and computers and stands and tripods and wireless do-dads and bags and all the other stuff you’ve got in your cabinet of glory. Within reason, none of it makes much difference. You make the difference. Before you go calling me a hypocrite, I’ll head you off at the pass and admit that I use some fairly high-end gear myself.  Canon L primes and Profoto packs and such, and I’ll admit that there are certain advantages to them, but most of them have to do with reliability and serious 100% on screen pixel peeping.  I tend to live by an adage my father used to say (but didn’t himself follow) which was “Buy the best, you’ll never be sorry”, so I want my gear to last and not break. Especially when I’m on the job. So yes, I’ve spend $1500 on a 50mm prime. There are things it does that the f/1.4 doesn’t do.  Well one very specific and specialized thing.

Could I have made Drabbles or Motion with a Digital Rebel and a kit lens? Of course I could have. In fact the 28mm lens I used for the whole project is like $350. Would the images have been quite as sharp at 20x30” on a gallery wall?  Maybe not. Would I have had more noise in the shadows? Yah, probably a little. Would anyone other than me and 5 of my photo nerd friends noticed?  Nah, probably not.  Let’s face it, even the least expensive digital SLR out there is worlds better than anything a photographer could buy for any price even 8 years ago. Digital moves fast. Which is most of the problem as the camera industry is, now more than ever, just another facet of a consumer electronics industry that has to convince you that you need the next thing in order for them to survive.

So you go these shows like the PhotoExpo here in NY and others that occur quarterly around the world and it’s enormous rooms full of gear by a plethora of different companies all vying for your dollar.  But you know what? If what you’re really interested in is making good images then none of this stuff makes any difference. So what if you don’t have this year’s model? You’re life is not going to end and your work is not going to drastically suffer. And let me let you in on a little secret: companies don’t make money on pros; they make money on amateurs who want to be like the pros.

Let’s also be honest about how most people use these images. I had a couple of big 30x48” prints done from my recent trip to Yosemite (Actually had to crop my 21MP images a little at the top and bottom to make them fit the aspect ratio)  They look gorgeous (thanks el-co color), and I mean really great. Worlds better than any 35mm film and as good as big medium format film in my opinion. And that was hand-held with fairly cheap primes. The thing is, how many people print this big? Think how many times have you personally done it?  How often do you print bigger than 11x14”?  How much do you print period!?

People keep upgrading to more and more megapixels, but why?  98% of the time, the person viewing it is looking at a down-rezed copy anyway. At best in a magazine or book, and at worst on a computer screen.  I’ll be the first to admit, gear can be fun. Everyone likes to have the latest stuff and there’s a fast high you get from it. There’s that new shiny thing advertised on the back cover of the glossy magazine that you lusted over. Salivating until it was released. And there is an argument to be made that new gear can spark interest in a pursuit that then leads to new and exciting work. But I personally think that’s a weak argument. If you need that kind of carrot to stay interested then go find another hobby and leave this one to those of us who love it just because. You’ll save yourself a lot of money.

Another argument people often make is that you have to have the latest stuff because the next guy does or that clients are expecting it. ‘They want to see that they’re getting their money’s worth’, is the cry.  That if you have the latest camera, or an iPad to show your portfolio on that you’ll get more work.  I tend not to believe this line of reasoning and even if it is true, well then we’re talking about theater and that has nothing to do with photography.  I’m not interested in looking like I’m good.  I want to actually be good.

I get emails from companies asking me to write blog posts about their products for money, or places like Amazon and B&H offering an ‘associate’ fees of stuff people buy through links on my site.  While I know that this is the smart thing to do business-wise, and that there’s no such thing as selling out, I still can’t get myself to do it. I know plenty of people that I’m friendly with that do and I mean no ill-will towards them, and I could probably make some dough, but it’s just not me. I don’t want to live off of the suckers that believe the line Nikon and others are feeding them. I came to photography to make good images and be respected for my work above all else. It may be futile and naive, but as Ayn Rand of all people put it: "I don't intend to build in order to have clients," Roark tells the dean who expels him from architecture school. "I intend to have clients in order to build."

You want to become a better photographer? Your gear is almost certainly not your limiting factor.  Stop reading magazines and gear blogs. Stop staring at your camera wondering if you need to upgrade. Pick up your camera and go shoot. And then do it some more. That’s how you get good.