A good friend of mine recently asked if I was getting a new camera anytime soon. "Maybe next year, if I have the money, why?" I replied. (Yes, I'm typing with crossed fingers right now in hopes that I can add D800 to my quiver.) Her response was the familiar refrain we see all over photography forums: "Well, my camera just doesn't take very good pictures, so I want to get a better camera and I thought if you were going to get a new one maybe you'd be willing to sell me one of yours."
Ummmm, okay. There's clearly a lot going on in that statement that we can pick apart. We all know that telling a photographer that their camera takes really good pictures is like telling a great baker that their oven makes amazing cakes. That's just silly, and doesn't even warrant more than a sentence here. But as I thought about this interaction more, I realized that there's something deeper going on in the mindset of new photographers and hobbyists alike.
In this article we dig into some aspects of the essential gear for photography. Enjoy!
Backtracking to my friend's question, and in her defense, I did allow her to use my D7000 for a couple of hours, and compared to her three-year-old Canon point-and-shoot, it does produce nicer photographs. Her point was that my camera was more responsive, it focused quicker, it was easier to hold, and when she pressed the shutter release, bam, the picture was taken. But the real problem I see is not that her camera is flawed, it's that she hasn't been willing to learn the equipment to find its strengths and weaknesses, and instead is buying into the belief that a new and better camera will make her a better photographer.
Certainly if given that same point-and-shoot, a competent photographer after having spent some time learning what it can and can't do would make good photographs with it. If they shot with only that camera for a week, and then a month, they would produce great photographs. Why? Because a good eye and a good camera are only parts of the full equation. Really knowing your equipment is also a part of the equation, and one that often gets overlooked when we get preoccupied with acquiring the next greatest camera body, or that other lens that we have to have, or that second flash.
Simply put: Want to be a better photographer? Learn to use your existing gear, regardless of whether it's a D3200 with a kit lens, a D4 with 50mm prime, or a Coolpix. Learn every setting, every menu, and every peculiarity of your gear and you'll make better photographs than if you just purchase another item that purports to make your photographs better.
This is not a new concept, and it is one that many great photographers throughout history have followed and recommended. Take for example, this passage from Ansel Adams' The Camera:
"The camera imparts its own level of abstraction ("departure from reality" as we see it with our eyes) to the photograph, lending qualities of shape and scale, for example, that frequently differ from our visual perception. I use the term image management to refer to the considerations and controls that affect the optical image, as seen on the ground glass or viewfinder and projected on the film. By fully understanding the characteristics of the camera and lens, we can learn to visualize the optical image."
Or how about Henri Cartier-Bresson, who reportedly only used a Leica rangefinder and a 50mm lens throughout his entire career.
Those are just two examples of masters who knew their equipment so well that the camera and lens became essentially extensions of their minds' eye, allowing them to capture images that to this day captivate us.
Practically speaking what does this mean to the modern day photographer who wants to improve? To me it means practicing with one camera and one lens until I have a very complete understanding of how the equipment works, and under which circumstances it will perform its best.
Given the range of camera makes and models out there, it would be impossible for me to state definitively where you should begin this process for yourself. That being said, I began learning about photography through trial-and-error at first, and then, as my desire to improve grew, I started seeking out advice on areas to focus in on.
My first real experience with learning my equipment and technique came when a photographer I was speaking to told me to start shooting only in aperture priority mode, and do so until I had a solid understanding of depth of field. I shot that way for months. I'd shoot the same subject at f/3.5, then at f/11, then at f/22, go home, download and compare them. After awhile I started to get a much better sense of what f-stop to shoot at to get good bokeh, or more depth of field, or where the acceptable limits were if I needed more or less light to achieve a specific goal.
I then moved on to shutter priority, learning what shutter speed to be at for motion blur, or to stop action, etc. After that, moving over to manual exposure was relatively painless, but it didn't mean my learning was over. Far from it. In fact, for awhile I went along just being thrilled that I was shooting manual all the time and getting consistently good results. Then I started to slump. I wasn't growing as a photographer. Yes I could take a good photograph, but I wasn't making photographs that I looked at and got excited about consistently.
And that's when I decided that focal length would be a good place to settle for awhile.
If you're at a point where you want to grow as a photographer and you haven't done the one lens exercises, then it's your time. The idea is simple, pick a lens, and shoot with it for an extended period of time. Now, you'll read a lot of recommendations to "shoot at one focal length for a day!" While that may be fun, it won't help that much. You're looking for more than fun. You're looking to grow, and the only way to do that is to practice something over and over and over again, like, for more than 12 hours.
If you're fortunate enough to own a prime lens or two, you're all set. Pick one, slap it on your camera, and spend the next month or two only shooting with that lens.
"But I only have my 18-105mm kit lens," you say. Well, go invest in some gaffer's tape, pick a focal length, and tape that zoom ring in place. Seriously. Gaffer's tape won't leave residue on the lens barrel when you take it off, btw.
I shoot DX bodies right now. I have three lenses that I carry, a Tamron 70-200 f/2.8, a Sigma 17-55mm f/2.8, and a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D. The prime is my favorite, and I'd say it's mounted on my D7000 about 75 percent of the time. That's where I started with this exercise, the 50mm prime lens.
A short diversion here. A 50mm lens on a DX body gives you a field of view comparable to a 75mm lens on a 35mm film camera due to the (https://www.earthboundlight.com/phototips/digital-crop-factor.html)crop factor. Back in the film days, the "kit" lens offered with many 35mm cameras was the 50mm, because the photographs taken with that set up were fairly to close to normal human field of view. If you're wanting to get that similar 35mm snapshot field of view on a DX body, you'll need a 35mm lens, which gives you the field of view of a 52mm lens on a 35mm film camera. If you're shooting with a zoom, just tape it at the 35mm point and you'll be good to go. I shoot the 50mm because it's what I have, and because I really like the field of view.
Only using a single focal length will help you grow as a photographer in a number of ways. First and foremost, you'll be forced to think more about your compositions. You'll either have to move your feet to get the shot you want, or, if you can't physically get to a place to do that, you'll have to decide on another way to get the shot. Maybe there's a wall in back of you, so you can't move back from your subject so it fits in the frame. Well, what if you lie on the ground and look up towards your subject? Or vice-versa. Can't get close enough to your subject? Maybe adding more of the environment into the frame will work, or, reframing by moving three or four feet to the left or right?
After a solid month of shooting this way, you'll start envisioning the field of view, and the resultant photograph, before you even bring the camera up to your eye. After another month, you'll be able switch your brain to 50mm mode, or 35mm, or whatever focal length you've been using and see the framing beforehand. Hey, that's what Ansel was talking about a few paragraphs up above! Pre-visualizing your shot. I'm fairly good at this now with my 50mm. I can look at a scene and pretty quickly figure out how it will look through that lens, just like I'm fairly good at knowing how the image will look if I shoot at f/1.8 or at f/11. And just between you and me, it took more than shooting with this lens for a day to have it stick with me.
This will also help you understand the limitations of your lenses. As you work through the lenses you have -- if you only have a zoom, just change your focal length to the wide angle or the zoom position and spend time shooting like that as well -- you'll start to see where each lens excels and where it falls short. For example, when I got my Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8, I spent about a month with that lens on my camera almost exclusively. During that time I learned that it's too soft for my tastes wide open at f/2.8, but gets very sharp at f/4 and still has nice bokeh throughout its zoom range.
More than that, I learned that the auto to manual focus on this lens is changed by pulling back on the focus ring, which can easily happen accidentally while the camera hangs at my side. The first few times that auto focus wouldn't activate I was a little confused, hunting around for what the problem was. Had I been shooting a wedding, or sports, I'd have been sunk. But after shooting consistently only with the lens for a prolonged period of time, when it's on my camera now and I'm about to take a shot and the autofocus doesn't kick in, it's instantaneous that I snap the focus ring forward. You don't miss a beat, because it becomes second nature. And it will only become second nature if you really know your equipment, which comes from prolonged use.
Nope. The same thing applies if you have more than one camera body. Commit to spending time shooting with just one body until you know where every setting is and can go through them without looking. I typically shoot with my D7000, but I also often carry my D2x with me. When I got that body, I spent a lot of time shooting with it. It's a very different camera from the D7000, technology-wise and in terms of its layout and menus.
Had I walked into any serious assignment with that camera as my only camera I'd have been lost, and probably gotten lots of horrible shots. Instead, I took my time with it and learned what it can and can't do. For example, it's essentially worthless in low-light and if I know I'll need to go over ISO 400, I don't even take it out of my bag. However, if I'm shooting a portait in good light, it produces wonderful skin tones, even nicer than the D7000. It's autofocus is also ridiculously fast, so if I'm shooting sports outdoors, I'll often default to the D2x. Again, I only know these things because I made the commitment to know them.
And yes, I know full-well that the D2x is getting a bit long-in-the-tooth. It's an eight year old camera, which means it might as well have come out of the paleozoic era in today's world of photography equipment. But the thing is, I can still make beautiful photographs with it, because I know what it can and can't do. To be honest, my friend's point-and-shoot is probably beyond the D2x in many regards. But I can also look back at magazine covers from 2005 shot with a D2x and I know that the real reason those images still look great is because the photographer knew the equipment.
While researching this post, I came across an article on Essentials for Photographers that I found quite useful. Along with drawing a brilliant analogy between jazz musicians and their instruments and photographers and their equipment, the author offers a couple of great lists of things every photographer should be able to recall or do essentially without thinking. Can you change lenses without looking at your camera, or change up your white balance setting without taking the camera from your eye?
The final thing I want to mention here is that learning your gear doesn't just mean shooting with it consistently for a period of time. It also means learning the craft through reading, asking questions, joining photography groups, and practicing.
A quick example. Let's say you're shooting only with a 200mm lens on your DX body. Well, if you don't know about crop factors, than you don't know that your shooting with essentially a 300mm lens. And if you don't know the general rule of thumb to follow for minimizing camera shake for a given focal length - shutter speed should be the reciprocal of the focal length - then you're not aware that you should use 1/300th as your starting point. Sure, 1/250th of a second will likely get you a sharp image, but understanding the theory and reasoning behind that 1/300th recommendation will help you a lot.
And so I'll end this write up on this note, which is essentially what I told my friend. A better camera, a better lens, a better super-awesome-your-photos-will-blow-minds gizmo might help you get slightly better images, but if you want to make much better photographs on a consistent basis, learn your equipment and learn your craft.
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