Note: This is a repeat of a previous post. Why? Because I’m on a sub-tropical island and may not have the time to make any posts. With any luck, I’ll bring back some stories and pictures for the future.
A friend of mine on Twitter re-tweeted something that got my attention today. Here it is:
Newbies always ask about gear, it’s never about the gear. Ppl w/some experience ask about approach. The latter is the ? we should be asking
Respectfully, I disagree with the first part of the premise. Gear matters. Otherwise, we’d all be using the same gear. There would be no such thing as “lens lust” or “Nikon Acquisition Syndrome.” I’m sure Canon users have similar conditions, too.
So why is it that photographers lust after gear? Do you really get a better shot with a more expensive lens? Is there that much of a difference between my old D70 and the D3S that I crave?
Well, yeah. Why else would I have switched from a D70 to a D200 to a D700? Why would I stop shooting with my old, beloved 18-200mm VR lens to use heavier 24⁄70 8 & 70 – 200 f/2.8 lenses? It’s because each acquisition did something to help me improve the quality of my images by solving problems I couldn’t work out with the previous set of gear.
You can buy cheap lenses. You can buy expensive lenses. Cheap isn’t always bad, though. Expensive doesn’t guarantee a good shot. That’s not the point. Instead, I’m trying to suggest that your gear matters when it helps you solve a problem.
Fast glass (lenses with an aperture of f/2.8 or larger) allow you to bring in more light, but they also help isolate your subject using shallow depth of field. The focal length you choose does more than determine how far you are from your subject. It also changes the angle of view to that subject. Longer focal lengths allow you to narrow that angle of view and eliminate potential distractions from your composition. Longer lengths can also compress the subject, making objects appear closer together. Conversely, a wide-angle lens will make objects appear farther apart.
Even features about the aperture blades themselves can impact your photo. Does your lens have six blades or nine? Are they nicely rounded? What difference does that make? Plenty, if you look at the quality of bokeh. Have you ever seen out of focus lights in a photograph that take on a magical glow? Were they round or did they seem octagonal? The difference has to to with the aperture blades.
My old D70 saved files at about 5 megapixels. My next camera, the D200, saved them at 10 megapixels. My D700 saves 12 megapixel files. The difference doesn’t really have so much to do with image quality as it does with the size of the print I can make. It also gives you a bit more room to crop, if necessary, and still have sufficient resolution for a print. A camera like the D3X has 26 megapixel files, so you can really make some whoppers with great resolution. Of course, you also end up using twice as much card space and disk space to save those files. It’s a trade-off. You, as the photographer and the creative genius behind the camera, have to decide what you need.
I switched from my D70 to D200 because of the camera controls more than the file size. By that, I mean that it was much easier to control various settings and features of the camera externally with the D200, where similar settings would require going into the menu of my D70. Both cameras could take great photos, but the D200 made it easier for me. However, I wasn’t satisfied with its high ISO capabilities. Anything above ISO 400 showed unacceptable noise levels in most circumstances. My interest in the D700 was to get better high ISO capabilities, due to its full-frame sensor. Once again, I made the switch to solve a problem. The D3S has even better high ISO capabilities and I’d have one, if I could convince myself to part with the $5K price.
Frame rate is another consideration. The D70 could shoot at three frames per second. The D200 and D700 shoot at five frames per second, and boost up to 7 frames per second with the addition of a battery grip. The D3S shoots at nine frames per second in FX mode and 11 frames per second in DX mode. If you’re shooting action, those faster frame rates give you a better opportunity to capture a critical moment. Gear matters.
DSLR cameras are fairly large and heavy. Point and shoot cameras are small and light. However, they suffer from fewer features and slower operation. There may be times when it’s more appropriate to take a small, light camera. The trade-off is that you have to be able to take a bit more time to get your shot. When I look at the quality of images from my D700 and P7000, both are really great in well-lit environments. The difference between them becomes a matter of control versus convenience.
I haven’t touched on every factor where gear matters. You could make the argument that there’s more to a photograph than gear; I agree. A photographer needs vision, creativity, a sense of composition and a myriad of other talents in order to make a good photograph. If you don’t have those skills, the gear won’t make the photo for you (unless you just get plain lucky). However, it’s frustrating as hell to know what you want to accomplish and not have the right tools to make it happen.
Please note that I’m not saying that your gear has to be expensive. A good example of getting a great bang for your buck is right over on the Strobist web site. David Hobby uses old, relatively inexpensive speedlights and makes his own modifiers out of cardboard cereal boxes, yet gets outstanding results. He’s still selecting his gear with a particular purpose, though. That’s why I’m saying “gear matters.” You can only juggle so much until you finally get into a circumstance where you need to have more control to make the exposure you imagine. When you get to that point, you’ll reach for the gear that helps you unlock your vision. So with all due respect to the person who made the quote that set me off on this post, sometimes it really is about the gear.