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?
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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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!