New gear does make you a better photographer?!

 

Often you read professional photographer’s blogs that go on about how new and better gear does not make you a better photographer, but it is a rather all in the skills one possesses and develops over time. This blog entry is somewhat of a combatant against this stereotype briefly addressing three major arguments why that simply is not true. But just as a reminder, good gear does not make a good photographer either, one needs both in order to succeed.

1. Blame Shifting

This is the most straight forward argument for getting new gear especially with young photographers starting out. Many feel that they just can’t achieve what they imagined starting out because their gear is holding them back. Back in the day I looked at the EXIF of so many great photos and thought, damn how did he or she do that with these settings? I bet it’s the camera, I thought to myself, because I had a measly Pentax istDL which, even back in the day, was already outdated and a kit lens which did not boast any image fidelity. In my mind, compared to the cameras and lenses all the images I was looking at online and in magazines were taken with, I just didn’t have the tools I thought. Even when I had the basics down and knew what to do in which situation (a least I thought I did) my shots looked nothing similar to what I had expected when I came home and worked on the raw files.

 

The milkyway rising over the Vallée du Clarée with the light pollution of the cities in the south glowing over the mountains. This is a composite of two images taken before and after I set up my tent without moving the camera in between - an easy way to shoot the twilight without having to edit the image to an unrealistic extend.

This shot involved some extensive camera skills I was not aware off. Merging several, different points in time over the duration of two hours without moving the camera. Merging them in post-processing. Getting such a noise free foreground does not have anything to do with the camera but rather with the point it time it was taken. In the late blue hour, the night sky was shot later and merged with the foreground in post as a measure to get a noise free foreground – a technique many professionals use. Not being aware of it I often wondered about how other landscapers got shots like this.

 

It was always easy for me to simply blame my camera, instead of my inefficient skills and lack of knowledge about the subject I was engaged with. Once I moved up the technical ranks with my Pentax K20D and the exquisite Pentax K5, later switching to my Nikon D800, it became harder for me evading the reality that it was not the camera but me who was just not able to capture things how I pre-visualized them. I started thinking that I do have a camera with which others achieved great results, so it can’t be the camera, it has to be me. And the more I realized that the more I dug into how to do things the proper way, investing much more time into the hobby and slowly but surely getting the results I wanted. And in case the outcome did not I look as expected, I confronted myself with the fact I had done something wrong, subsequently occupying myself with quite a lot of trial and error, reading and socializing with other photographers to get things right. I had not done any of those to such a productive extent before because I just gave up, saying it were the technical limitations of the gear that kept me from reaching further.

2. Technical Limitations

Now this is the part nobody wants to read: even though I argued that technical limitations are not always the problem, sometimes they are. I would hope that someday professional photographers would stop telling people that technical limitations are not evident or denying that are they effectively limiting the possibilities of the individual photographer; it’s just not true. In my case I did my fare share of night photography and long exposures over the years and with my first cameras it was not technically possible to achieve comparable results, which really did de-motivate me. I drove south into the Alps, going for some overnight hikes, only to realize that a milky way shot at f/4.0 with a my crop sensor  just didn’t look anything comparable to what might be attainable with a full frame camera and f/2.8 (which was what my fellow traveler at the time was working with). Of course because neither was I able to get the same amount of light due to the larger aperture value nor as „little“ noise as my friend. Being all but content with the outcome I just had to abandon night photography I thought, otherwise I’d always be bummed that I wasn’t able to produce anything as breathtaking as what I had in mind. I tried to work more in the seascape area and did mostly sunsets and sunrise shots. But by heart I’ve always been drawn to the twilight, so this made me very unhappy to say the least. But as a student working part time to finance me upgrading gear was always a tough choice in the end I decided to invest.

 

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Looking at the left border you will see a purple color banding as well as next to it a color alteration tending towards green. This can happen when your sensor is heating up after several long exposures. Doing mainly long exposures even back in 2009 this was a harrowing issue for me, I felt definitely technically limited, because after a few shots this issue forced me to wait for the chip to cool down.

 

(Note though, that this is now 5 years in the past, and cameras are constantly improving in terms of night photography the Pentax K5 and the K3 were already vast improvements and thoroughly suitable for night photography.)

 

During a 20 minute exposure the light adds up to intricate star trails and the gentle orange becomes visible as the dawn is only an hour out over this valley in the Saxony Switzerland.

During a 20 minute exposure the light adds up to intricate star trails and the gentle orange becomes visible as the dawn is only an hour out over this valley in the Saxony Switzerland. Due to the low temperature the shot resulted in extremely low noise.

 

The same scenario can also be applied to other types of photography. Shooting wildlife with my 24-85mm lens is nearly impossible, same can basically be said for all standard focal lengths. Depending on what animal you’re after spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars on tele-lenses and extenders seems like the only possibility to catch a bald eagle in mid flight or shot a moose in the morning mist or maybe a cheetah chasing its prey. Same goes for other specialized areas of nature photography such as astro, macro or underwater photography. You have to have the gear to get adequate results. Underwater shooting without a water-housing, doing macros without a macro lens or extenders? Other areas of photography feature other but ultimately similar limitations.

 

Even with my 70-200 on a crop sensor I had to get fairly close to this stag in order to get the shot. Without the tele lens it would have been nearly impossible to take this photo.

Even with my 70-200 on a crop sensor , resulting in a total of 300mm, I had to sneak fairly close to this stag in order to get the shot. Without the tele lens it would have been nearly impossible to take this photo though.

3. Motivation and Experience

Now this is the positive side that many who claim that new equipment doesn’t make you a better photographer always tend to forget. A new toy is always motivating to actually go out and try new things, after all you didn’t buy a expensive near piece of gear not to use it. Most recently I bought a 14mm 2.8 prime lens to capture the night sky in Iceland, but since my last alpine trip, which was supposed to be a test run, was cut short due to vehicular problems I didn’t get to use it for what I had in mind. Instead I was stuck at home not using it? No, I just drove out to some nearby locations only to toy with it, seeing what I could do with the lens composition-wise and how it differs from my other lenses when it comes to night photography, getting a feeling for my newly gained technical possibilities the lens brought to the table for me. I did this in order to be prepared for next time I’m in the field so I know what my options are and can decide and act accordingly.

Getting any kind of gear usually leads to a lot of experimenting and trying new things,  gaining new insights into one’s own routines and sometimes even breaking them thereby extending the virtual toolset. I never tried star trails or time-lapse until I had a remote shutter for example. I never thought about trying macro until I had a Tamron 90mm macro lens to actually try it, even though I did buy it for portrait work. Ultimately I ended up selling it because I decided that macro was not for me but I gained new experiences working with the lens, for example learning much about the proper use negative space and bokeh in nature photography.

 

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Here I lit up the band from the front with three flashes to combat the sun. A shot like this is not possible with a reflector alone. Here the gear clearly increased the possibilities for the uses of light and composition not possible without.

 

One might consider this, as many photographers are learning by doing, a new toy means a new game. And much like children play to learn and develop their cognitive skills, the same can be said about photographers and their skills. Sadly this often comes down to a trade of money against experience which ultimately comes down to the classic modern dualism of time vs. money.

My advice to many photographers has been start to work with a camera or a lens until you have done everything you can, technically, before thinking of buying something new. Only that way you really know if it’s you or the gear that prevents you from achieving the desired results. For me it took fairly long until I decided to move to full frame because with my Pentax K5 I felt it delivered good results and the switch wasn’t necessary. But with my focus shifting more and more towards the night and getting to print bigger and bigger prints I reckoned that investing in a new camera  would also make every buck spent on upcoming trips more worth it because (at least potentially) I was able to get better quality images on all of them.

The question however remains, what it the problem, the photographer or camera? This question has to be asked because against popular opinion I state that it’s not always only the photographer, it can in fact also be the camera (or other parts of the gear) hindering progress. Ultimately getting better gear is of course no shortcut to being a good photographer but it can play a vital role provided that one actually knows what the reason tampering with the results is.

 

The moon lit up by the sun slowly drifts upward behind the Aiguille d'Avres. It's light being refracted by the earth atmosphere becomes akin to that of a sunset when exposed for a longer amount of time. Without even a haze of wind the picturesque Lac Guichard reflects the moons beams in between the plants which slowly overgrow the lakeside each year.

The moon lit up by the sun slowly drifts upward behind the Aiguille d’Avres. It’s light being refracted by the earth atmosphere becomes akin to that of a sunset when exposed for a longer amount of time. Without even a haze of wind the picturesque Lac Guichard reflects the moons beams in between the plants which slowly overgrow the lakeside each year. This shot is merge of several high ISO shots to clean out the noise in the mid-ground again overcoming technical limitations by knowledge in the field and in post work.