There’s a long standing joke, told by photographers, based on Arnold Genthe’s autobiography, ‘As I Remember‘ that goes something like this:
A photographer invites his friend and his wife over for dinner. While waiting for dinner to be plated, the wife looks over the great photos on the wall and says, “I love these photos, they’re amazing. You must have a great camera.” The photographer smiles and nods his head. A few weeks later, the couple returns the favor and invites the photographer friend over for dinner. After clearing his plate, the photographer expresses to the wife who made the dinner, “I absolutely loved this dinner. It was amazing. You must have great pots and pans.”
The point of the story of course is that it’s the photographer who is responsible for the great photos, it’s not the gear that’s used, just like it’s the chef who prepares the meal.
Photographers love this story, because it over-values their contributions, while undervaluing the tools. I subscribed to that line of thinking for years. But, eventually, you realize the gear does matter and probably matters more than we’re willing to admit.
I’m often asked why my photos are so sharp, have such great color, etc. And I tell people, outright, it’s the gear. It’s because I’m shooting a Nikon D810 with a Zeiss 50mm Makro Milvus lens and you’re shooting with your iPhone. This isn’t to say an iPhone can’t take great photos. They absolutely can, under the right conditions.
But, better gear gives you a better shot of capturing the moment. When you can shoot 8 frames per second at 24 megapixel resolution, with a full frame sensor, you’re going to have a better chance than shooting with an iPhone 6. That said, the gear can only take you so far and it can also highlight mistakes in technique.
I’ve been shooting since I was about 8. Always, Nikon. Always. From manual manual focus lenses and manual camera bodies like the Nikon FE2 to the legendary auto focusing Nikon F5 to the first real digital consumer SLR, the Nikon D100 to my current Nikon D810, I’ve owned many different camera bodies and no shortage of lenses. I’ve also tried dozens of digital image processing software suites. Here’s my accumulated knowledge and advice for what to buy:
- You’ll have a lot of options for camera bodies. But, at a high level, you have Full Frame, Cropped Sensors and Micro Sensors. As a general rule of thumb (but not an absolute), the larger the sensor the better the image quality, color fidelity especially at night. You pay more for Full Frame…and by more, nearly double. If you can afford Full Frame, go Full Frame. But, never invest in the Full Frame at the expense of quality lenses. Never.
- Once you pick a body type, you’ll pick a brand. Though my allegiance is with Nikon, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter which brand you pick. Honestly, there isn’t.
- Lenses are more important than bodies. As a rule of thumb, avoid zoom lenses. Most are cheap. They promise you versatility, but you sacrifice so many other benefits. Think of lenses like knives in a knife set. Knives have a purpose. Lenses have a purpose. Don’t buy a new lens, until you’ve mastered the previous one. Also, don’t buy a knife set. Buy individual knives. Also, buy lenses that are fast. Where possible F1.4, but you won’t lose much going to F1.8. And generally, you’ll save hundreds of dollars going from F1.4 to F1.8. My recommendation is to look at a 50mm F1.4 lens. Regardless of brand, it will run you about $500. A F1.8 version will be half that.
- Get a good quality camera strap. I recommend the OP/TECH Reporter series.
- There is no such thing as the perfect Camera bag. Too many options. Too many use cases. But, I nice versatile solution that’s low cost would be the Lowepro Orion. It’ll carry your camera, 2 lenses a flash and some other supplies. It’s also lightweight, durable and doesn’t look like a camera bag, which means it doesn’t attract the same potential theft risk.
- Work on your form. There’s nothing more impactful than holding a camera the right way. Doing it the right way, eliminates vibration, making your images sharper. There’s no shortage of links and books that will help you improve in this area.
- Avoid cheap tripods. What you gain in cost, you’ll lose in performance. Here’s the thing about tripods. You’ll probably only need one, over your lifetime. Yep, just one. Spending $300-ish, might see, crazy, but not when you amortize it over a decade of shooting. I recommend something like this, from Giottos. It’s carbon fiber, a solid height and supports 3rd party heads and plates.
- You will need software to process and manage your images. Think of it like a digital darkroom and file cabinet. For oganizing and managing images, I use Adobe Light Room. If you’re looking to save cash, both Microsoft and Apple, offer free options that do the job. Your camera manufacturer will also offer you free software with the purchase of your camera. They’re fine. At some point, though, you’ll want something better. When that happens, get DxO.
- Buy a portable hard drive to backup your library. I have over 10,000 digital images. They’re backed up to a Lacie hard drive and backed up again to another hard drive.
- Avoid anything called a “kit.” For example a camera kit, will contain a camera and 1 or 2 lenses. Run. Run. Run away. Per advice #3, you think you’re getting a deal, but in reality you’re getting mediocre lenses. You’ll also see things like a starter kit, which might contain a cheap tripod, a memory card and some other things. Again, this seems like value. It’s not.
Beyond the gear, take a class. Yes, I’m serious. Take a class that will teach you how to use your camera, proper form, composition, etc. Your pictures will be better for it. Your local community college probably has a course that’s less than $150. It’s money well spent.
Lastly, go out and experiment. Decide you want to shoot something, be it a bird, graffiti, architecture, alleys or trains. It doesn’t matter, just practice. Tied directly to this, never accept or offer to shoot someone’s wedding or other major moment, until you’ve practiced, apprenticed and are willing to put your name and finances behind what you’re committing to. It’s irresponsible.
So there your have it! Hopefully, this will help you become a better photographer, even if all you’re capturing are your kid’s birthday parties. And believe me, as a father of 2, those are some of the most important memories to photograph.