Looking for Mr. Goodgear

It still amazes me how many "gear" questions I get versus "photography" questions. The FOMO, angst-driven, self abuse people get themselves into because they have a few less pixels or dynamic range is .2 stops lower or the MTF is only 97% at center instead of 99% is not at all useful. Taken to an extreme, it leads to excessive fandom, heated Internet arguments that degrade into name calling, and much smaller bank accounts, all while not producing any better images.

The increasing quality and utility of smartphone cameras has no doubt produced some of the problem. Technically, if all you're going to do is post images on social media, you don't really need any more than a current iPhone or Galaxy can provide. You'd have some limitations to framing, as you're really constrained to something about 12-50mm (equivalent) in terms of focal length, and of course the fact that photons continue to insist on being random means that you either get noise or highly processed images that, when looked at closely, reveal a clear fauxness to them. 

Our goal as photographers is to...well...take photographs. Good ones. Interesting ones. Compelling ones. Storytelling ones. Attention-getting ones. It's not to brag about feature X or performance Y. A great photograph is a moment in time as seen by you and manipulated by you.

Whoa, Thom! Manipulated? 

Yes, manipulated.

“A camera, like a guitar, is just a box with a hole in it. Until it is placed in the hands of a true artist, it will not make music, only noise. What do you want your music to sound like?” – Tim Mantoani

You—or sometimes the camera—make hundreds of decisions when you produce a photograph. Hundreds. Workshop students of mine know that I've identified several hundred such decisions, all of which interact in clear, documentable ways. The least useful decision you usually make—though there are exceptions—is how many pixels you'll use. Or what brand name is etched on the front of your gear facing the subject. At a minimum you should realize that you choose where to point the camera and when to press the button, but if you take a deep dive, you'll find those hundreds of other decisions you're making, as well.

Now don't misunderstand me. I've been pretty clear that I want the best tools possible. That's because I want the most optimal data capture possible. And I want that optimal data capture so that I can produce optimal final results. It's the Ansel Adams' inspired geekness in me that pursues this, partly because I know that to stand out, you have to do the best possible work. 

But I try not to obsess over this, I just try to make sure I'm using the best possible gear while making the best possible decisions using it, or as near as I can get to that.  

Now what prompted this short essay? Obviously a gear post ;~).

An assertion like this: "my Camera X is only getting 25% of the images right, while my Camera Y gets 50%, so obviously there's something wrong with Camera X." Nope, the problem here is almost certainly Photographer Z. They simply haven't learned how to use Camera X or Y, as they should be getting near 100% of things right with pretty much any modern camera. 

No doubt our gear has gotten more complex, technical, and requires more study than ever before to control it well. The corollary is that we have many more things that we can control, whereas we had fewer things we could do so with in real time before. Consider this: if I was walking through a landscape setting with my film camera in the 90's and suddenly decided that what I was seeing would make a great black and white image, I'd have to note where on the roll I was, rewind the film while still leaving the leader out so I could reload it later, unload the film, put new film in, and then probably change at least one dial manually. Today I can press a button. And, of course, going back to using color triggered the inverse of the process with film, but is still just a button today.

We're going to see new cameras in 2021 that once again push the bar forward in some, perhaps many, ways. They'll be promoted with marketing terms like "more" or "less" (as in "more pixels" or "less noise"). Personally, I want more control (I'd also enjoy them to cost less money, but that's not going to happen very often). 

The real question is this: does a new camera actually improve your photography? For most of you the answer is going to be no because you haven't actually yet managed to do everything you can with your current cameras and lenses. I've written about this before, particularly in "Blame the Equipment." But it's worth repeating the ordered priorities I presented in that article:

  1. Upgrade the photographer
  2. Upgrade the support and shot discipline
  3. Upgrade the lens
  4. Upgrade your understanding
  5. Upgrade your camera

These days I might even put #4 above #3, as most modern lenses are quite good, and understanding them might be more important than having a particular one.

The camera companies believe that their problems are basically all engineering and marketing related. The engineers will continue to add pixels, add features, and increase performance, while the marketeers will try to promote those changes with the biggest bullhorns they can find. 

The question you should always ask though, is "what does this do for my photography?" Moreover, you should always be asking yourself "have I done everything possible for my photography with the gear I have?" If the answer to that latter question is "no", then it's far less likely that the answer to the former question will be "something great." 

One useful thing about the ongoing pandemic and the reduced number of photo opportunities most of you are experiencing is that it gives you more time to contemplate that second question. So let me put that into a homework assignment: 

  • What might you be able to do with the camera and lenses you have that you aren't? 
  • Do you fully understand how your current camera and lenses work? 
  • Do you have a complete and nuanced assessment of what your gear can and can't do? 
  • How often are your photographs disappointing not because of pixels or dynamic range, but because of decisions you made? 

Every year at this time I tend towards self examination. You should, too. We have this tendency to blame something (or someone) else for our own faults, mistakes, and missed opportunities. That's the easy way out. So, to inspire you, a few more quotes:

"A true genius admits that he/she knows nothing." —Albert Einstein

"Screw out the bolts of your life, examine and work on yourself, fix your life again and get going." — Israelmore Ayivor

"Painting what I experience, translating what I feel, is like a great liberation. But it is also work, self-examination, consciousness, criticism, struggle." —Balthus

"What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the small man seeks is in others." —Confucius

How are you going to upgrade your photography this year? What's the biggest hurdle holding you back from getting more wows when people see your images? Are you making images that are uniquely yours?

I'm betting it's not a new camera or lens that will fix your problems. If it is, I want to know more about that magical piece of gear, because I don't seem to have it in my gear closet. 

Looking for gear-specific information? Check out our other Web sites:
DSLRS: dslrbodies.com | mirrorless: sansmirror.com | Z System: zsystemuser.com | film SLR: filmbodies.com

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