Building on the entry before, “Gear in Context”, I wanted to address two of the most frequent questions I get asked:
1. "What gear do you use?"
2. "What camera should I buy? "
And though one of the driving ideas behind this blog is about engaging the ideas behind great photography that can help you shoot great images regardless of your technology, it’s also fair to talk about what to buy when you are presented the need or desire to do so.
I take my purchases very seriously, but I have a framework for figuring out what will serve me (and not get in the way and dilute my ability to deliver great work). In the next post, I’ll tell you what gear I use and why. In this post, however, I’d like to walk you through how you might go about forming a point of view about what gear fits you best, and ideally help to make you feel free to reject over-pursuing things in your quest to master your photography.
And as always, please don’t forget rule #1--great photographers can make great photographs with almost any piece of equipment, and under almost any constraints. A real photographer is out shooting with their iPhone, and is driven to do it, even when their expensive rig is in the shop.
That said, may this list help to guide you...
1. Are you a photographer or a technologist?
We will be looking at this question much more deeply in the future. But at least for now, a cursory answer is all that is needed. Basically what you are trying to assess, is, “am I more motivated by photography itself, or by the technology and things of photography?” Do you spend more time shooting and communicating through your images or browsing on gear blogs? Do you spend more time buried in old issues of LIFE Magazine/*insert source that caters directly to your preferred style of photography* or on the B&H Photo Video website?
If at heart you are much more of a technologist than a photographer, simply own up to it. Admit that you need a huge gizmo/pixel peep kind of factor to be satisfied, and you will likely sell and update your equipment before it’s ever been heavily used (or in some cases, ever used at all).
As we’ll discuss one day in the future, this does not disqualify you from photography. And I’m not trying to be sanctimonious (as I’ll dive into in later posts, sanctimony among artists is a major problem that serves no real purpose). Photography can be approached by anyone, and should be, and you have as much right to the medium as anyone. You are not a lesser citizen.
It’s just that the values and principles behind great photographers and great technologists diverge and follow separate paths, and trying to do both and focus on both will mean you’ll be doomed to a world where you are always only half-satisfied with both your work AND the tools you use to create that work. You'll never get the full thrill from your equipment that you seek, and you'll never really be able to produce photography that meets your standards of good taste. It takes a lot of time and a lot of focus to master photography, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of focus to continually acquire, learn, and master new technology.
There are many great cameras that I could put into the hands of a photographer that don’t appear to offer much in the way of technology lust (the Ricoh GR, for example), but that can produce some amazing photographs within very mature workflows. But if that doesn’t satisfy the technologist in you, you’ll never bond with that camera, it won’t go out with you, and you won’t put in the hard work and effort it takes to make great photographs.
2. What is your workflow, methodology, and subject matter and what cameras get out of your way as you do these things?
What are you shooting? How do you shoot that subject? Are you trying to have a camera on you more so you can engage your values in photography as you witness your kids grow up, desiring to communicate these images with friends and family via social media? Great. Awesome. There are some great options for you.
Are you building a portfolio to fulfill your lifelong dream of shooting for Rolling Stone and selling as many images you can, along the way, to help fund the adventure? Great. Awesome. You have different needs.
It would take far too long to walk through all the different options here and spell out what you should think about, but I can absolutely hit this with the simple stick for you—your camera and your technology will not take the images for you. They will likely not get you outside shooting more (they are insufficient motivators). And they won’t make bad images and composition look skilled. They won’t. So the most critical thing your technology will do for you is to get out of your way and let you work the way you work best.
When shooting weddings, I love to capture authentic moments as they occur. The more I have to interfere in the moment to get a good shot, the less interested I am in it altogether. As part of the package, I often work in poorly lit conditions, and I try as hard as possible not to add flash when I don’t have to (part of that “interfering in the moment” value I have). So for me I want a smaller, less intrusive camera system, that can shoot professional quality images, in lower light, and is durable enough that I won’t let a client down if it starts to rain during a shoot. If my camera can do that, I can shoot all day and not think a single thing of the equipment I’m using—and that’s the goal.
3. How will you be presenting your images?
How will you be communicating with your images? Once you have a sense of your motivations for buying, and you have a sense of your preferred workflow/methodology, you must think about how you will present the images.
We all hope we shoot a million magazine covers, but let’s be real. If 90% of your delivery is in prints smaller than 24 inches or on the internet, you don’t need a 240 million gigahixel super-camera. You don’t. Feel free to walk away from that kind of pressure. Don’t forget that even 7 to 8 years ago magazine covers for Vogue, National Geographic, and Rolling Stone were shot with cameras that couldn’t record as much information as your iPhone can today. Great photography can get published, period, regardless of the equipment that took it. In fact, if it’s good enough, it’s hard to keep it locked up.
If 90% of your delivery is for large scale prints and large scale marketing, well, that changes things. And instead of a full frame sensor, I’d really recommend looking medium format anyway (which is very expensive, but puts even full sensor cameras to shame in terms of image information).
If you’re shooting for stock photos (a hard way to make a living), you need to figure out the image size and etc that is required and maybe be ready for the future--don’t buy the bare minimum today if next year you’ll be obsolete in the stock photo business.
Just be honest with yourself. The most expensive delusion in all of photography is a technologist, lusting for top of the line gear, who has convinced themselves that they will be shooting billboards--and further, that shooting billboards with high-end gear will motivate them to be more creative and will lead to them being a great photographer.
This theme of delusion happens much more often than you think.
4. Finally, what are the professional expectations others will have of you?
If you’re shooting weddings for a living, you sure as hell better make sure you have a weather sealed camera that has a great reliability rating along with backup equipment. Because if you fail them on that day, and all because you thought you could turn a quick buck, you’re hurting our industry much more than helping it. And you’re doing it at the expense of people’s sacred events and emotions. Family and friends that converge on wedding days may never all be together in that same way ever again. It’s a fantastic environment to photograph within, but it is critical to be skilled and completely professional.
Contrast this pressure with simply shooting your kids and sharing with family online. There are no professional expectations in this case, and you can always put your camera away if Poseidon sends the winds and rain at you. If the camera fails, you can send it in for warranty repair and not fail to provide basic income for your family. And there are some GREAT cameras out there, at decent price points, that aren’t appropriate for professional weddings but are way above the consumer cameras of even a few years ago. That’s your sweet spot for that use.
Making a choice:
After you’ve spent some time really thinking through these questions, you’ll be ready to put together a list of a few cameras that may suit your needs. Try to get a selection. Don’t be afraid if isn’t “gizmo” enough—just try to match a few cameras to the way you intend to use them.
You may feel yourself pulled toward a professional DSLR/mirrorless “system”, like Canon, Nikon, Sony, or Fuji. Or you may find that you are free to choose something much more simple that you will always have on you (Ricoh GR, Sony RX100, or Fuji X100).
Once you know the direction you’re heading, that’s when the technology blogs can be an amazing resource. I like DPREVIEW.COM the best, but there are dozens of excellent sources.
Finally, once you think you’ve identified a system that fits you and gets out of your way as you shoot the things you really want to shoot in the way you really want to shoot them-- STOP. Don’t go buy it yet. Go to a camera rental shop (there are plenty online, but probably a few in the nearest major city to your location) and rent that camera and supporting gear as close as possible to what you want to purchase. Rent it for a week, and take it with you every single day. Host a photo contest with a friend of yours—best image of the day wins, every day, for a week. Carry it with you and shoot with it every day. Print or post your images just as you intend to do when you own it. See if you’re tempted to leave it at home once the novelty wears off. This counsel applies equally to basic consumers, photography students, new enthusiasts, gear heads, and hard professionals.
If at the end of the week you find it does fit your workflow and subject matter, and it doesn’t get in the way, and it does justify the price point, then feel free to go and buy it and never look back.
That’s the camera you should buy.
Keep this little tip in mind as well: buy books over gear, plane tickets over technology, lenses over bodies, and real experiences over fantasies.