A lot people believe their photography will improve "if only…" With the holidays approaching, a lot of avid wanna-be photographers, amateurs, and professionals will be making wish lists for gear that they erroneously believe will make them better photographers. There are many forums, YouTube videos, and articles pandering how camera/lens/light/brand/voodoo doll will make your photos better. Today, we'll examine that idea.
Not helping the situation are the photography merchants and manufacturers themselves. New bodies, lenses, and accessories are either released or announced around this time, creating some anxiety for those who are considering upgrading and those who feel their photography will never improve enough to "catch up" to top-tier gear.
This article is meant to refute that whole gear-oriented mentality and help trim those holiday wishlists down and make those future investments wiser. There is no reason to purchase something you'll rarely use, and it makes even less sense if a piece of equipment actually does nothing to improve your photography.
Each brand has its pros & cons, but using one brand or another doesn't make you any more or any less of a photographer.
Brand loyalty is perfectly fine in nearly every profession, sport, or just about anything. However, brand fanboy-ism/fangirl-ism, isn't an acceptable stance when considering serious investments into photography equipment.
One has to take into consideration many factors when investing into a particular brand, including that brand's customer service, not just who is using what. So, the whole "brand vs brand" argument is meaningless if the gear you use gets the job done well.
One of the best examples is to compare the world's top photographers and their images. Some use Canon, some use Nikon. Others use Toyo or Hasselblad or Mamiya. After enough searching you'll quickly realize that it actually doesn't matter.
Each company and camera model follows that company's principle as well as the line of work it was designed to do. Those principles and designs have their advantages and disadvantages. There is no single brand that can do it all and no brand has the ability to make you a "real" photographer.
In fact, many of the master photographers one studies in school, predate the top three DLSR companies: Canon, Nikon, and Sony. Their artistic or technical abilities didn't lie in the signal-to-noise ratio a particular sensor size produced or which had the most extensive lens line-up. None of those things mattered, yet generations of photographers - myself included - aspire to have and express such artistry, power, and insightfulness.
Does it really matter which camera manufacturer's gear was held up to Steve McCurry's eye when he shot the iconic "Afghan girl" image?
In that moment, the brand disappeared. In fact all the mechanical stuff separating McCurry and his subject disappeared. They blended seamlessly into a timeless portrait.
There is also a lot of debate as to which camera type and sensor size "make" better photographs. Some people advocate APS-C, APS-H, Full-Frame (35mm), Four-Thirds, or 645 (medium format). However, the size of the camera's sensor and/or it's aspect ratio doesn't have much to do with making a photograph better.
This doesn't mean that they can't be compared to each other, but compared to the low tech film Cartier-Bresson used, they are all fine.
What needs to be understood is that sensor size affects the field-of-view and the signal-to-noise ratio. It is true that larger sensors have less noise and tend to have wider color gamut and dynamic range, but that doesn't necessarily make the final product better. And using a cropped sensor camera doesn't make you any less of a photographer than one who uses a full-framed sensor.
I've seen many, many people running around with 5D Mark II's, D700's, and other flagship cameras and still take the same kind of crappy photos they did with their point-and-shoot. These are versatile and excellent tools, but the inexperience and ignorance of the user limits it to the capabilities of a low-end camera.
An example why the most expensive camera isn't necessary for a great photo. (Canon Powershot D10)
If you haven't stretched the limits of your current camera body, or your work doesn't regularly require the features a higher-end body provides, then wait. Spending $2000, $3000, or even $5000 on a camera when you won't be using it's best features isn't a wise investment.
F/1.2, f/1.4, f/2, zoom vs prime. Which one is the best for photos?
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-4.5 kit lens. The trick is to know the limitations of any lens you use. (Photo: Daniel Sone)
The real answer, like camera bodies, really doesn't matter too much in most situations. However, lenses are important tools in your photography arsenal as they, more than the camera body itself, determine a lot of the aesthetics of your image and limits of your camera.
Fast lenses - lenses with low f-stop numbers - enable the photographer to work in lower light situations and have a shallower depth-of-field. This doesn't mean that you should only use the lens at it's widest aperture, that won't work very well in bright sunlight.
Also, the zooms vs. primes debate really falls apart when a professional is behind the lens. They'll be able to make great photographs whether it's a 24-70mm zoom or a 300mm prime. Fast prime lenses are cheaper and sharper than fast zooms, but sacrifice on versatility and speed that zooms offer.
Lenses are updated less often than camera bodies and good glass is expensive. Because of this reality, lenses are more of a long-term investment than bodies that are updated every few years. For example, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM was introduced in 2001. It didn't get an update until 2010. The longevity of lenses is a good case of concentrating your investment into the best glass you can afford rather than the best camera.
Buy the best glass you can get that fits into your field of photography and shooting style. A good lens will enable you to maximize your camera's capabilities as well as the situations you will be able to effectively address.
Lights & Light Modifiers
When Joe McNally and David Hobby pushed the limits of what speedlights could do, the debate regarding if one really needs large studio lights spiked to all-time highs. Then Zack Arias impressed many with the versatility of just one light. The discussions further complicated themselves. In Europe, Bert Stephani also promoted the use of speedlights and stretched the notions of what they could do accomplish as well. However, as their needs expanded, you'll notice that all of them have made large studio lights increasing players in their amazing image-making.
Speedlights are great. Studio lights are great. But the key to effectively using them is understanding light and lighting in the first place. And the key to pushing these units seemingly outside their capabilities takes lots of practice and an expert understanding of photography. Even with that expert understanding, it is still a lot of trial-and-error. In some cases, the aforementioned professionals can reach their intended shot sooner.
When purchasing lights and light modifiers, take a good look at the kind of photography you mainly do as well as the photography you're aiming to eventually do. Since photojournalism and wedding photojournalism are the bulk of my work, my gear has to be light and portable. The trade-off is power, but my speedlights fulfill 90% of my flash needs.
My go-to light-modifier are umbrellas: silver, shoot-thru, and a softlighter II. They're quick to set-up and like my speedlights, do most of what I need.
Umbrellas are super versatile modifiers for soft, directional light. Their versatility and speed come at the cost in controllability.
On the flipside, larger studio lights offer some great advantages at the expense of the extreme portability of speedlights. The two main advantages is power and recycle time. A 580EX II at full-power can take over 6-seconds to recycle, a studio light can usually do it under 2 seconds.
I usually break out the studio lights for easier overpowering of the sun and the ability to use the lights farther away while still having a small aperture. In that situation, I can work a lot faster because I have plenty of power to work with allowing for shorter recycle times.
There are a huge variety of manufacturers of speedlights, studio lights, and modifiers to choose from. My suggestion is to pick equipment that will satisfy the most needs while remaining within budget. These things can get expensive because of the accessories that you'll need as your lighting becomes more complex.
Computers & Software
This section is a lot like the lens section. This is a place where one should be a little investment-heavy. A good, powerful computer and good software will save you lots of time in post-production. Whether you're a Mac or a PC user, it is important to get as much power and space as possible.
Nowadays, a professional system should have no less than 8GB of RAM and a multi-core processor more than 2Ghz. The graphics card doesn't need to be the best, but if you regularly use the video features of your camera, you're going to want it. A graphics card of 128MB or more is highly suggested.
An oft-neglected part of the computers is the hard disk speed. A slow hard drive can hobble your systems overall speed because the read/write speed can't keep up with demands. Spend the extra money of 7200rpm drives. You'll appreciate it when you try to open or save the 16MP+ sized RAW files and even larger TIFFs.
For software, Adobe's products have become the industry standard and 95% of photographers as well as academia (tutorials, etc.) use them. However, not using Adobe products doesn't make you less of a photographer and can be just as effective. An excellent alternative is Corel's Paintshop Pro X4 Ultimate. For the very low budget consumer, there is The GIMP, a free open source photo editing program that does a pretty job considering it's FREE.
Finally, the monitor is also important. Large displays are tempting, but quality and control is more important. A graphics display is very expensive, but there are alternatives which have 98% Adobe RGB and high native resolutions too. If you're color-correcting your own photos, get a calibration device.
Education, Training, and Associations
Since the 10-inches behind the camera is the most important thing in photography, pay considerable attention to it. Study the masters and keep an eye on the trends in photography. There isn't a need to "follow the crowd," but taking time to experiment with a trending technique or style only adds to your arsenal of skills.
Majoring in photography or art isn't necessary to become world-class, but a few classes with a good teacher doesn't hurt either. Photography classes will get you the basics, but a good mentorship and endless practice and disappointment is what will sharpen those skills and help develop your eye.
Joining an association can be a good idea, if it's relative to your line of work. A lot of photographers join associations to boost their marketability, but this membership says nothing about their talent. In most cases you pay a fee and bam, you're in. I suggest joining an association with the most benefits in terms of discounts on gear, networking, and education.
If you're strapped for cash, there is a huge amount of free information online that can at least get you started on the basics or give you a glimpse into a technique. There are many websites and videos out there that give quality information, and all for free. As a take-away from the Internet, I highly recommend books too. All photographers should have a few books featuring iconic photographers and their works as well as a few books on specific areas of photography, including business and legal.
As with any education, if you don't practice or apply your knowledge, it is even more useless than if you never learned it.
I hope this article has helped you realize that getting more gear or upgrading isn't directly connected to better photographs. I also hope it slows down that impulsive-buyer side in all of us whenever big sales or new toys come out.
Whenever considering making an investment, take into careful consideration the kind of work you do, the quality of it, your skill level, as well as your budget. After that, do additional research regarding specific products and try to get the best one. The best one isn't always the biggest, most expensive, or the most popular, it is the gear that will work best for you.
You'll notice that I didn't make any specific suggestions regarding brands or models because each photographer works differently. Yes, there are things that nearly every photographer has, but that doesn't mean you need it for what you do. The fact is, that there is no "best" [insert item here] for [insert type of photograph here].
The best photographs depend more upon the photographer than upon the equipment.
Happy wise investing!