The Minimal Upgrade

©Samantha Chrysanthou and Darwin Wiggett

Photography is a gear-centric craft. We often measure the mettle of another photographer not by his pictures but by his gear. Watch two male photographers as they first meet in the field:  each casts an appraising glance at the other’s equipment, weighing who has the best gear. This dance of the photographic peacocks is won by the photographer with the biggest, brightest and newest gear. No wonder the camera manufacturers love guys as customers–they’ll always jump at buying ‘the latest’. Having the ‘best’ is a sign to others that you are the greatest warrior in the tribe. Pictures?  Who needs pictures?

©Darwin Wiggett

I have to confess that I am as guilty as anyone. I’m often seen sporting the latest camera model or trying out a new lens. But lately my peacock feathers have gotten a little tattered and tarnished (and a few have even fallen out). Maybe I’m just a little older and wiser, but the gear matters to me less and less when I am out shooting these days.  I find I am more moved by the process, creation, experience and joy of photography. Probably this is just an evolutionary stage in the development of the photographer. I have finally moved on from an obsession with gear to an obsession with creating (hey, that process only took 25 years!)

Here are a few observations I have made that might help you keep your upgrades to the minimum and your pocketbook healthy.

  1. It’s not the gear the matters, it how you use it. Ok, we have all heard this before, but that’s because it is true. I can’t tell you how often I have seen ‘over-geared’ photographers. They have top end cameras and a suitcase full of lenses but barely know how to turn their camera on. There is no point upgrading to a new camera unless you truly know how to use your old one. Trading in your Toyota for a Lamborghini means nothing if you can’t even get out of first gear!
  2. Only upgrade your camera or lenses if your current gear is somehow limiting your ability to translate your vision into pictures. For example, if you have become interested in sports photography but the camera and lens combination you have has glacially slow auto-focus (and it’s not user error on your part) then maybe it might be time to consider an upgrade.
  3. Don’t be fooled by the megapixel war! Just because a newer camera model has more pixels than the one you currently own does not mean that it’s a better camera. On the contrary, I have seen a number of ‘new’ cameras with large megapixel counts produce fairly disappointing results. Personally, I don’t really see why most photographers need anything more than 12-16 megapixels. You can make amazingly big prints with cameras in this range. Unless you literally are planning on papering your grandmother’s attic, anything more than 16 megapixels is probably overkill. Don’t buy pixels you’ll never need.
  4. Buying high quality lenses and a good tripod is more important than a top end camera. Glass is where it’s at. To get the best out of today’s digital cameras you need top glass. The lens is the limiting factor to quality images. Most camera sensors can capture more information than lenses can resolve, so buying the best lenses means better quality images. A great lens on a low end camera will give better photos than a mediocre lens on a top-drawer camera. Digital camera bodies are essentially expensive disposables. New upgrades to an existing body happen every 6 to 18 months. Good lenses are the long term investment. And a tripod (and solid tripod head) just ensures top quality performance from your lens because blurring is minimized when you use a tripod properly.
  5. Consider buying second generation bodies. I recommend not jumping in and buying the latest release of any camera. More and more, there are bugs and firmware issues that need to be resolved with new cameras. Wait before upgrading until at least six to nine months into the life of a camera model because by then prices will drop a bit and any issue with the camera will be well known and hopefully resolved. Better yet, as soon as a new camera is released, the predecessor to that camera will be available on the used market (or even new) in droves at crazy low prices. That is where you’ll get great bang for your buck!
  6. Go out and use the gear you already own. The more you practice, the better you will become both at the craft and art of photography. Buying new gear won’t make you a better photographer (sorry) but using the gear you already own will.

So get out, use and understand your gear, and forget about the dance of the peacock. While everyone else is out strutting around, you’ll be making art. In the end, that is what it should be about. Happy shooting!

©Darwin Wiggett – Canon Rebel T2I, Sigma 17-55mm lens

 

 

 

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and pure wilderness.

25 Comments

  1. Olivier Du Tré
    March 1, 2012

    Gimme a call when you are selling the Linny the Linhof :P

    Good article D, with lots of truths in there.

  2. Elizabeth Matney
    March 1, 2012

    If I were to buy one tilt shift lens for landscape photography with a Canon 30D, which would you recommend?
    Great article, I put on my calendar to look again at the Canon G1X in 9 months. Thanks!

    • Darwin Wiggett
      March 2, 2012

      For a small sensor camera a 24mm (=35mm) would be my choice for a TS-E lens.

  3. Jim Bartlett
    March 1, 2012

    You are so right. I have been shooting for 30 years and the best stuff I have taken has been in the last two years. Working on creativity and not worrying about the equipment. I’ll go for two weeks just shooting with a single lens.
    Great new site keep up the good work

  4. Laura Knight
    March 1, 2012

    Well said……excellent article…thank you.

  5. Mike Kap
    March 1, 2012

    Couldn’t agree more Darwin. I have been a fly fisherman all of my adult life and that sport is also big into gear. Guys seem to think they need the most expensive rods and reels to catch fish, when a lot of guys do not know anything about the fish they are trying to catch. Like in photography if a lot of people just took the time to understand the sport they would do better. Odd how my kids when they were young always caught a lot of fish with very cheap rods and often out fished the adults we met on streams.

  6. David Lilly
    March 1, 2012

    Darwin,

    Your comments are bang on. It seems some people get a high out of the latest gear.

    Note, I did not say photographers, I said people.
    I believe the best photographer don’t worry about gear.

    Most of your readers are snap shooter and not photographers.

    Just because you own a few wrenches and a screwdriver doesn’t make you a mechanic, neither does owning the best camera equipment make you a photographer.

    David

    David

  7. Stephen
    March 1, 2012

    Yay for #5. With the 5Dmk3 scheduled for tomorrow, I sold my mk1 a couple weeks ago and upgraded from the fire sales of the mk2′s.

  8. Gerad Coles
    March 1, 2012

    Well said, Darwin. I’ve been on both sides of the coin, as well. I think for the first long while it was me feeling inadequate because I couldn’t afford all the fancy gear, and other guys would look at my rig and smirk. Later, I had the money and bought gear to make others feel inadequate. Finally I am at a point where I look at the guys buying all the latest high-end gear, but are barely capable of using it, and I smirk at them, admiring those making beautiful photos with simpler, older equipment.

  9. Royce Howland
    March 1, 2012

    Truth!

    I just had a discussion the other night with a few photographers, on this very topic. One person took exception to this point of view, feeling it was important to work he’s shooting now to be able to show it as ultra high-res images on a 10-foot wide high def screen @ 240 PPI, at some unknown point in the future. Therefore upgrading to a D800 right now was the thing to do, vs. my suggestion of using the launch of the D800 as an opportunity to scoop up a 2nd-hand D700 for a great price. (Just as one Nikon-specific example of the general idea of “minimal upgrade”.)

    Well, a few years ago I might have agreed with the perspective that more & newer is better. But not any more. Now, full disclosure: I shoot a Pentax 645D, so I can hardly claim to support minimalism in gear for the sake of minimalism. :) But the key is more like “the minimal gear that will let you do what you need to do with your work.” Since my focus is on large format, high quality prints of richly detailed scenes, a high res body makes sense for my work.

    Perhaps some people have a burning desire to make images that will still look good up close on future 10-foot high def screens. Well, it’s their choice. But very few photographers really need to work at this scale. Increasingly, I feel a 1- or 2-gen older (but venerable) body with good glass — and a lot of exercise on creative expression! — is a much better idea than staying on the vendor-inspired, consumeristic hamster wheel of continual upgrades to the newest, biggest & fastest. I know that personally I will be buying far less brand new gear into the future…

  10. Milkayphoto
    March 1, 2012

    Ha! Love the visual of “two male phoptographers meet in a field…” Just like with everything else, it’s not the size that matters but what you do with it. ;-)

  11. Peter Carroll
    March 1, 2012

    Sing it from the rooftops brother Darwin!

    You speaketh the truth. The subject of new cameras came up yesterday on a post that Jay Patel put up on Google+. Jay and Varina are looking to get the new 5DMKIII because Jay put a MKII in the drink. I’ll copy here what I said yesterday on Google+. Here’s to creating great images no matter what’s in the bag – new or old. I’m waiting for the currier truck to pull up in the weeks ahead with my D800 but I’m only getting a new camera because my D2x is ready for retirement. That camera has been a real work horse and owes me nothing. It’s been a really good friend on many an adventure.

    I’m always curious when I meet photo peacocks or read posts from pixel peepers on the web to see what kind of images are in their portfolio. It’s amazing how often my reaction is “Are you kidding me?” To say I am often unimpressed is an understatement.

    With age hopefully comes wisdom. As you say it was a personal journey over 25 years to get to the outlook you now have of photo equipment but I think a certain someone might have played more than a small part in helping you along the way and getting you to stop and enjoy the view.

  12. Mike Kap
    March 1, 2012

    PS, Had another thought…(loss of memory comes with old age) I teach basic photo courses here in Sundre and many of the images I use for demo purposes are from my very first digital a Pentax Optio waterproof and I also use many of my old slides from my Pentax k1000 days. It helps a lot of the participants realize that it is not the gear but the eye of the photographer that creates memorable images.

  13. Aruna Kalutanthri
    March 1, 2012

    Great article, and so true. I recently started hiding my peacock feathers; I use gaffers tape and cover the brand markings. Not many will know what cameara and lenses I am using.

  14. Doug Keech
    March 1, 2012

    Great article Darwin. I still use my old xsi from time to time and people give me weird looks when they see that “entry level” camera body lol.

    Best wishes,

    Doug

  15. Florian
    March 1, 2012

    Hi,

    I completely agree with you and particularly welcome point 2. In addition, not having a lot of unused equipment lying around or constantly selling old equipment is liberating; at least for me. For me, less is definately more!
    May I recommend my camera buying prevention guide (http://www.blog.floriansphotos.com/2011/12/camera-buying-prevention-guide.html)?

    Buy the way …. I have just discovered a tiny smiley at the bottom of this page …. I hope it is deliberate and I find it funny :-)

  16. André Joanisse
    March 1, 2012

    Wise advice Darwin

  17. John Fujimagari
    March 2, 2012

    I’m actually quite proud of myself for making through 2011 and not making a major gear purchase! This year I plan on working on #6, pro-quality lenses aren’t worth a darn without some solid photographic technique in making images.
    Although there is something to be said for being out in the field and bringing out a lens that makes everyone’s eyes bug out! Royce knows what I mean! ;D

  18. Nigel Clark
    March 2, 2012

    Are you really saying I DON’T need the new Nikon D800E for landscapes???? Darn!

  19. Ray van der Woning
    March 3, 2012

    I feel much better about the gear I’m dragging around, thank you. The newest item in my kit is the Crumpler camera bag I haul it around in!

    I bought my 10D in 2004 and for what I shoot it’s still entirely appropriate. I have my eye on the “aging” Canon 7D as a birding tool but until I get the glass to support it it’s firmly on my hope to own list.

    Still I can’t help thinking my next purchase ought to be something in that 12 to 16 megapixel sweet spot; Something second gen because that’s what I can afford.

  20. heather simonds
    March 5, 2012

    I had to pass your expert comments on to someone who was just asking me for gear advice. BTW, male peacocks drop feathers seasonally so don’t despair. You”ll be strutting before Sam in full display (during the monsoon season in India so whatever that translates to here) before you know it!

    • Darwin Wiggett
      March 5, 2012

      My feathers have been falling out for years! They never seem to grow back in the spring :-(

  21. Bruno
    April 24, 2012

    Darwin,
    Did you ever finish your eBook on shooting with TS lenses?

    • Darwin Wiggett
      April 25, 2012

      Still working on it, hope to be done in a week or two.

  22. Bruno
    April 26, 2012

    Great, I’ll look for it here.

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