Recently, I was asked to contribute a What’s in your bag article to the HDROne magazine. As I was writing it, I started thinking about photographers and their gear.
Photographers are a strange breed. Most of them are in love with their gear, and to some, gear is even more important than the photos it produces. This can sometimes lead to strange behaviors and decisions when it comes to purchasing the right gear and using it to the maximum of its potential.
I was realizing that my own approach to buying and using my gear differs fundamentally from the approach of many others out there. While I do feel an aching need to buy some new item from time to time (plain gear lust), I try to resist it and go rational about this desire as much as I can… well… most of the time. So, I decided to put together some tips for you.
Here are my 10 tips that will help you take better decisions with respect to your gear and get the most out of what you already have.
1. Get to know your camera inside out
Read the fine manual. Ok, this is obvious, right? Of course you look into your camera manual every now and then. But what I mean is something different: Take the manual of your camera body and read it – form the first to the last page. Too many people don’t read their manual at all or only very superficially.
You may not be able to memorize all the contents, but that’s not the point. Today’s cameras have so many functions that may be helpful to you in different situations. The only problem is that you probably don’t know they exist when you actually have such a problem.
Reading your camera’s manual front to back will give you a good overview of what your camera is capable of achieving. This, in turn, will enable you to come up with the right solution tailored to your camera’s capabilities when it counts.
While you’re reading your manual thoroughly, take the time to try out the features that you read about. That will make it much easier to recall them when the decisive moment comes.
2. Push your gear to its limits and learn what these limits are
How do you know when you need new gear? Most people know it when they see it. But if you’re on any kind of budget (and who isn’t these days) then this is not the most effective way to go about upgrading your gear. It may be the way that gives you the most pleasure, but eventually, it’s a waste of money.
If you let your gear lust control you, you’ll only end up buying things that you don’t need. Instead, find out which features of your current gear actually limit your photography. Then, try to find a camera that gives you enough head room with respect to the features that are important to you.
Let your gear grow with your abilities. Doing it the other way around will not work.
3. Don’t be an early adopter
I have always lived by this rule, and it served me well. Whenever there is a brand new toy out, chances are that the first version has bugs. Whether its display problems in the D800, or dust problems in the D600, or focus problems with some new lenses, you’ll be the one dealing with it. Unless you really enjoy being the first to find out that some new item is crap, and unless you enjoy reporting and debating about that online, stay away from brand new products. You’re not going to be very hip, but this will save you a lot of time, money and pain.
Wait a few month until the manufacturer has sorted out the issues and then buy the next version. If you are the first one in the whole wide world to buy that fancy new camera that was just released yesterday, then “Hooah!” to you. You’re the man! But unfortunately, you’ll probably not be able to process your RAW files for the next 3 months because the respective software vendors still need to write the software to support it.
4. Don’t baby your gear
One of the difference between a professional photographer and an amateur photographer is that pros treat and use their gear as tools. They use their camera in much that same way as a carpenter uses a hammer – it needs to work to get the job done. Many amateurs, on the other hand, treat their gear like little treasures that need to be protected at all costs.
Don’t get me wrong! There is nothing wrong with protecting your gear. But if you’d rather not get that important shot because of that 3% chance of your camera taking a hit, you have the wrong priorities. Once you start worrying more about the photographs than about the gear, your photography will really improve.
Along the same lines: Don’t use a cheap UV filter to protect your expensive lens. Once you’ve convinced your spouse that you need to take a loan to buy that 70-200mm 1:2.8 lens, the next thing that you may do is to buy a 20$ UV filter is screw in onto that beast. That effectively makes your new 2000$ lens a 20$ lens. Don’t do it. Your lens is more robust than you may think. Use it for what it is: A tool for getting great photos.
5. Don’t be a pixel peeper
The Internet is full of people who spend their time sitting in front of their computer looking at photos (taken by other people) at 300% zoom level, trying to spot noise, a lack of sharpness or other artifacts. If they don’t find any, they’ll go to 400%. They discuss vividly and get aggressive while arguing about things like MTF and pixel density.
Make no mistake – image quality is important. The problem, however, is that nobody will ever be looking at your photo at those levels of magnification. Chances are that your 24 megapixel images will be scaled down to 1 MP or less before they are viewed online. If one of your photos is ever going to be printed on a billboard and displayed on Times Square, people will view it from 500 feet away, making it appear even smaller than the 1 MP on your screen. By the way, at that point in your career, gear will be the least of all your problems.
Think about your gear in realistic terms: Will it allow you to produce high-quality photos for the purpose you are using it for?
6. Don’t listen to what people say online too much
Pixel peeping is not limited to pixels. The same type of people that complain about lack of sharpness at 763% magnification will put forward bold statements about anything under the sun if you ask them. If you have a gear-related question, you should not as your very first step post it on a forum. Many people on these forums are on one of the following missions:
- They have bought the item in question and want to protect their decision by claiming that it’s the best one out there, even if it’s crap.
- They cannot afford the item, and they try to defend their decision not to buy it by telling people that it’s crap even if it isn’t.
- They bought a different item, and they try to defend their decision by telling everyone who decides differently that they’re plain wrong.
- They are trolls and will argue with you whatever you say.
Unfortunately, it can be quite hard to tell the sensible people apart from those that are on a mission.
Try to find credible sources of information that deal with such questions without any emotion or personal desire to be right. This takes more time and effort, but the end result is much better. Big review sites (e.g. dpreview.com or cameralabs.com) usually have good objective reviews. But be aware of people who only promote products to earn money from affiliate marketing.
7. Don’t blame it on your gear
If you only had a Nikon D4, a Canon 1D, or a Leica M9 (or whatever you are dreaming of), your photography would be so much better, right? Well, maybe. But that is no excuse for making crappy photos. Today, even entry-level DSLRs are capable of capturing professional photos. The difference between a Nikon D3000 and a Nikon D4 is no longer to be found in the quality of the photos, at least if you have sufficient light.
Blaming it on your gear does only one thing: It keeps you from using your gear effectively.
8. Be inventive
If you really find that your gear is limiting you, and you don’t have the budget to change that, try to figure out how you can use your gear to work around the problem. If your camera only does 3 shot in an auto exposure bracketing series, use semi-auto bracketing to extend it. If your camera is not as good in high ISO settings as you wish, use exposure stacking to reduce the noise. If your lens does not go to f/56 to give you the depth of field you need for your macros, use focus stacking.
For many problems, there are simple solutions with which you can reach your goal without investing in new gear. Research and learn! If you’re having a gear problem, google it and see how other people solved it. But stay away from those pixel peeper forums, will ya!
9. Be prepared to make compromises
Nothing is perfect in this world. This is especially true for camera equipment. Often, you will find yourself having to choose between two or more products, and whichever way you go, you have to sacrifice something. Some people get so carried away over such decisions that they lose sight of the actual problem they had in the beginning. Some even become pixel peepers or start online fights with them.
If you can’t decide, make a priority list. What’s most important to you, and what’s not so important. Compare the products according to this list. If you still can’t decide, just buy either one. Apparently, it does not make a big difference.
10. Think and act holistically
Photography is not about one camera or one lens. It’s about a whole system of hardware and software entities that need to play well together. Optimizing one without looking at the others may break your whole system.
As an example: When the Nikon D800 came out, I seriously thought about getting one. But when I discovered that those 36 MP files are about 45 MB large, I knew that this would break my whole workflow, forcing me to buy new storage and maybe reduce the images in size before processing a big HDR Vertorama. This simply did not make sense. So, I decided against it for the moment, even though the camera itself is fantastic.
The point is that you need to make gear decisions with your whole system in mind. Try to find the piece of equipment that fits in best, and make sure that this new item does not become the limiting factor too soon.
Oh, and don’t use a crappy tripod to support your new pro DSLR with that 600mm lens, please.
Summary and Conclusions
Buying and using photography gear can be a real pleasure if you do it right. Sometimes, however, you upgrade too early or for the wrong reasons. Sometimes, simply using your existing gear in the right ways can be the solution, and paying some extra thought before you purchase can save you a lot of money, time and pain.
Be sure you take the right decisions next time. Oh, and have fun with whatever you have right now. Chances are that it is capable of doing what you need.