Goals and gear

A friend wrote me with a variation of the most common question I am asked, “What gear should I buy next?” In a technology-based pursuit like photography, the question appears to make sense. This is doubly so in a creative pursuit which is largely shared through advertising driven media. Before I answered him, I grilled him with a few more questions. Then I came back to him with a suggestion for the one thing that every photographer should be spending more time and money on, especially these days.

This blog/response was born of his question and the fact that I have been doing a number of presentations recently showing my work. As I do that, I am talking with various audiences about our shared love of photography. The most common question that I am similarly asked when I speak is what gear to buy next and what type of gear do I use? Before answering either question, I like to know more about what the questioner has in mind in terms of their goals and their gear.

With that in mind, I will start with my friend’s query. Partly to respect his privacy, but mostly to make my suggestions applicable to the widest audience possible I will pick and choose from the longer notes he sent me. He wrote:

“I’m a very amateur photographer – I have a Nikon D50 that I’ve had for a few years. I have the standard kit lenses (28-80 and 70-300) as well as a 50mm lens that goes to f/1.8.

My photography right now is all about my daughter. She’s 22 months old and now very active. Over the last two years I’ve gotten some great pictures, but lower light conditions were always a challenge since a lot of photos I got of her were made inside in the winter. The built in flash on my D50 never produced good light for flashes.

I try to shoot in manual mode all the time… I want to get good at doing manual exposure… But some times I’m not entirely sure what I should be doing at a given time.

The people that have the most input on my work are my family and close friends. I haven’t shared my photos broadly but I would like to if they improve.

I’m trying to figure out how to best improve and make my photography more versatile and determine where I should spend any additional money. Would I be better off spending my dollars on more lenses and accessories or would a new body be a better purchase?

So what is the one thing that I he should be spending more time and money on, especially these days? Ironically it is NOT camera gear.

He already owns the one other piece of gear I would recommend for anyone working on low light and with children, a 50mm lens that opens pretty wide, in his case, f/1.8, which will allow him to both get the most light to his sensor and keep his shutter speed higher to avoid camera shake.

I might say that he could use an off camera or external flash. He also could use remote flash cords, so he could use that flash more effectively off his camera. I have blogged, podcasted and written articles about that, which can be found at:

http://thewellspoint.com/2009/02/16/the-latest-in-electronic-flash/

http://thewellspoint.com/2008/12/17/using-flash-and-slow-shutter-speed-when-photographing/

http://www.pdnonline.com/pdn/cp/olympus/technology/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1004012161

As important as it would be to buy the new gear, it would be equally important to invest time to learn how to use that.

What he needs, like most photographers, is to invest in himself as a photographer. He needs to spend the time (and maybe later the money) to become a better photographer. And that needs to be done before any more money is spent on gear! That is because as he (or any photographer) gets better, they figure out what they like and do not like in terms of their photography. When a photographer knows what they want to focus on (pun intended) they become remarkably clear in terms of knowing what gear they need and what gear is merely a distraction (or even a waste of time.)

From my friend’s brief note, it is clear he loves photographing his child but he also has told me elsewhere that he likes photographing people in general. He does not have that much interest in posing or controlling the situations but rather likes photographing what he finds. He understands the importance of using manual metering to control his exposures. He would rather not trust the machine to do that, which is also my strategy too. Unfortunately, his use of manual is not that consistent yet.

So what would I suggest he do? First, invest time in learning about light, metering, lenses and composition. There are hundreds of amazing resources on line that will help him (or any photographer) improve their craft, just by looking at photos and reading the articles/blog entries/etc. I am prejudiced of course, but one place to start is at my web site, The Wells Point, with video podcasts and free information for aspiring and accomplished photographers. That is at http://thewellspoint.com/ Reading through all the blogs of interest and watching the various podcasts will be an education in itself. I actually had an intern earlier this year whose “job” it was to read each blog and watch each podacst to find mistakes. She found many and I corrected most of them. (The errors in the podcasts are harder to correct.) As I suspected, she said that all that reading was an incredible education on its own, so I know that this suggestion can work.

Second, take a workshop or a class and practice what was learned in step one above. A photo workshop can be ideal because the shorter format, five to seven days, allows a photographer to concentrate on their skills while shutting out the rest of life’s distractions. Some people prefer semester length classes, with their weekly assignments/meetings to both discipline them and give them a source of creative feedback. A good workshop/class will ratchet up your skills, stimulate your creativity and motivate you to do more (and better) photography. Those will last at least as long and improve your photography as much as a new lens.

Third, spend a lot of time looking at the work of other photographers. Try to understand why the images that compel the viewer (or repel the viewer) do that. Looking at an image and saying wow or neat tells you nothing. Learning how to articulate why an image works will help you look at images more comprehensively and will later help you when you are out photographing. I have blogged and podcatsed on methods of critiquing and editing images at:

http://thewellspoint.com/2010/04/16/how-do-you-critique-photographs/

http://thewellspoint.com/2009/12/30/an-introduction-to-critiquing-photographs/

Writers and musicians explicitly note their influences and spend much of their early careers reading or listening to the work of those who preceded them. In both media, knowing and learning from the history of the respective media is the sign of a serious practitioner. Why in the world are photographers any different? A good musician knows the melody and beat found in the work of musical masters. Why shouldn’t a skilled photographer know the composition and play of light found in the imagery of a photographic master?

Fourth, find a master/teacher/mentor to work with part time. Every serious photographer needs someone to give him or her serious feedback on his or her work! I used to get that from my teachers but that also came from my peers in the darkrooms at the various newspapers where I used to work. The first place to look is the instructor in the previously mentioned photography workshop. Ask others who have taken classes or workshops who were the best (and worst) teachers. Then contact them and start the process. The best workshops start a creative dialogue between a student and teacher. The most creatively successful students are the ones who continue that dialogue beyond the workshop setting. Yes, that master/teacher/mentor (like me) needs to get paid for their expertise, but that expertise can be more worth more to your photography than any new lens or tripod.

Too often we think that buying something will solve our problem. This is not unique to photography. Many kitchen gadgets are sold using the same promise of wondrous technology that will, supposedly, eliminate the hassle. Also, many people get paid so well for their “day job” that it is hard to take time away from that to pursue their photography. Buying something often seems like an easier way to get to the goal, but it usually is not.

Malcolm Gladwell argues in his best-selling book, Outliers: The Story of Success, that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for at least 10,000 hours. He dos not argue that the key is better tools or spending more on the gear used to perform the given tasks.

The gear manufacturers spend billions on advertising promising that their camera will solve your problem including doing the metering for you. In the end, a camera is a machine and it still needs an operator. Though I long resisted it, I have recently been encouraging those students who avoid using full manual to at least set one of the exposure variables, either the aperture or shutter speed. Then I teach them how to use the exposure compensation to lighten or darken the image. That way they have at least a partial understanding of exposure and how to get the best exposure for a given image.

Keep in mind that most cameras do 95% of what we would ever need them to do, assuming you have read the manual (or an alternative guide book.) Once you do you will know the thousands of functions inside your camera. Unless the next camera solves a whole new problem, like adding video capability, I am unlikely to spend the money on “moving up.”

You can see how I avoided spending my friend’s money on gear as long as humanly possible. As for the question, what gear to buy? Once you have invested in yourself as a photographer and know what you want to do with your photography, you’ll figure it out. And besides, the longer you wait, the better. The technology only keeps improving as the cost keeps dropping. What was out of your reach cost-wise last year will cost a third less this year.

2 responses to “Goals and gear”

  1. amen. amen amen.

    Photography is about harnessing the skill and craft of photography, not about the equipment. Equipment and gear are just tools to achieve that end result.

    In the same way that the ubiquity of graphics and layout functions in what were once ‘word processing apps” and the easy availability of desktop publishing apps did not turn everyone into graphic artists and layout publishers, likewise buying more equipment does not make someone better at photography or a better photography.

    What most people take for granted as common logic and common sense in various other vocations and avocations seems to fall by the wayside when it comes to photography.

    Few of us or at least few sane people would assume that more or better equipment will make them skilled pilots. Likewise simply owning a sports car with a price in 6 figures will not make one a more skilled driver. No amount of computer applications will make one a skilled fund or investment manager.

  2. in my humble opinion the answer to

    “Would I be better off spending my dollars on more lenses and accessories or would a new body be a better purchase?”

    neither. spend your money on workshops, classes, and giving yourself the luxury and liberty of time to shoot.

    I’m willing to bet that the most valuable thing that David takes with him when he travels to shoot projects is himself: His skills, his experience, his mastery of the craft and his personal discipline around using all that. That ensures that capturing dramatic and significant images isn’t luck, its a repeatable and expected result.

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