That’s good gear! That’s bad gear! Gear, gear, gear!

 

Via Jesse Hildebrand, who has a great photography website, a Twitter toot about a pretty ridiculous statement from Nikon on their Facebook page:

A photographer is only as good as the equipment he uses, and a good lens is essential to taking good pictures! Do any of our facebook fans use any of the NIKKOR lenses? Which is your favorite and what types of situations do you use it for?

As I wrote in my post about unhealthy obsessions with camera gear, this post from Nikon was as clueless as it was offensive and self-serving.  I’ll start right away by objecting to Nikon’s use of “he” to refer to all photographers.  It points to how little thought, insight or perspective went into this nonsensical post.  Moving on, now, of course Nikon wants you to buy and use the best equipment possible.  It’s entirely in their self-interest.  To be fair, the corporate overlords at that and every other camera manufacturer may well sincerely believe that their equipment in particular will help photographers take better photos (perhaps proportionate to the total number of dollars, pounds, euros, yen, etc. spent on that equipment), but the message nevertheless restates one of the first fallacies of photography (mmmm… that’s some good alliteration!): your equipment is what is responsible for the quality of your photography, and the better the equipment, the better the photographs.

I mean, it’s obviously true that a tripod is best when you need a long exposure or a steady hand, and that an external flash is better than no flash at all, but these things are ultimately just tools. Even the camera itself, for all the wankery over auto focus points, ISO speed, sensor size, and pixel density, is just a tool. The best (or, more accurately, most expensive) camera nevertheless requires a lot of artistic input and user knowledge to take a great photo — probably no less than the cheapest little camera you can possibly buy does. The great photographers of the last century used equipment and lenses that would seem laughably primitive today if measured against the standard of latest-and-greatest.

Nikon’s Facebook foolishness rightfully attracted enough scorn and criticism that it was forced to respond and mollify its angry customers and fans:

We know some of you took offense to the last post, and we apologize, as it was not our aim to insult any of our friends. Our statement was meant to be interpreted that the right equipment can help you capture amazing images. We appreciate the passion you have for photography and your gear, and know that a great picture is possible anytime and anywhere.

This restatement is better, but the notion of “right equipment” is still ambiguous enough to be misleading.  ”Right” could still incorrectly imply “the best,” or “Nikon’s,” as opposed to meaning helpful tools such as “a tripod for X, a wide-angle lens for Y, and flash or studio lighting for Z”  I have a fairly basic tripod, the Manfrotto 190XPROB.  It came very well recommended, and was a purchase I researched thoroughly when I decided to acquire one, but it’s still just an aluminum tripod with a very basic mounting head (the 804RC2, for the fellow nerds out there).  A more expensive one might be lighter (and you can walk into a camera store and easily spend three or four times what mine cost on a carbon fibre tripod), and a different (and even more expensive) mounting head might be more rugged and/or flexible, but when I need my camera to sit perfectly still at a fixed position, it works.

Please indulge me while I repeat something I’ve said (and will continue to say) many times before: you are the one taking the photographs, good or bad. Your equipment can help you take good photographs, particularly when you have specific needs for a successful shot (such as lighting, a wider or longer or faster lens, or a tripod or monopod), but it can just as easily help you take bad photographs.  Your composition, exposure decisions, and camera operation will dictate what the outcome is.  The camera, at best, facilitates all of those above factors.  It might even help in the sense that it performs well in low-light situations, or has a full-frame sensor for those nice wide-angle shots, or can shoot a tremendous number of frames per second for sports and action photography, but none of those things actually translate directly into great photographs.  Indeed, if you’re tempted to blame your equipment for an inordinate number of bad, out-of-focus, or poorly-exposed photographs, I’d first suggest doing everything possible to rule out user error.  The camera and its lens together make for a sophisticated and complex piece of equipment, and so when something fails it tends to be catastrophic, but there are a lot of complaints (I daresay the majority) that speak more of the unrealistic expectations or suboptimal exposures achieved by the photographer himself or herself rather than truly malfunctioning or inferior equipment.

So.  Having said all that, and having written about the folly of obsessing over gear, I’d still like to share what I personally think is must-have equipment for a photographer.  That is, the stuff you absolutely must scrimp and save for and buy or borrow or beg (legal advice: but not steal!) as soon as you possibly can.  It is a short list.

A camera. This is the no-brainer, and I hate to even start here, but I want to make it clear that there are options.  For an enthusiast, I’d personally recommend some variety of single lens reflex (SLR) camera, and — in this computerized future — a digital one if you can manage it, but it’s not essential to start. I simply think that the control, flexibility and reliability afforded by an SLR camera is extremely hard to match or surpass (unless you’re talking about a medium or large format camera that costs much, much more money). Film SLRs are still entirely viable, though, and used ones can be had for cheap, cheap, cheap.  If you use a reasonably modern Canon or Nikon (and possibly other brands), you can even keep the lenses it uses should you decide to purchase a digital SLR camera from the same line someday.Think carefully about the uses to which you want to put your camera, and seek out reviews and advice before deciding what to purchase.  The “biggest and best” is probably not necessary — your biggest investment will probably be in lenses, so consider a system that will allow you to continue using them even if you choose to buy a different camera body as you progress.

For what it’s worth, I’ll tell you about my camera.  It’s a Canon EOS 40D digital SLR.  The model was introduced in mid-2007, and I bought mine in mid-2008. It’s never been Canon’s most sophisticated or most expensive camera, and it has long since been displaced as the promising middle child of the Canon family by the 50D, 60D, and now also the highly-respected (if uppity) 7D.  I find I’m pushing it if I shoot at ISO 800 or higher, so it’s not the kind of camera that photographers and/or equipment nerds drool over (and by “equipment nerds,” I mean that sometimes you can be more obsessed with the analyzing and acquiring the gear than actually using it), but it takes excellent, excellent photographs.  It is more camera than I could have dreamed of in the 1990s when I was using my manual focus Pentax Program Plus film camera, with its manual aperture ring and teensy internal viewfinder display to indicate the exposure (or a low battery).  My father would have made a 40D sing.  Heck, I bet that the wonderful, “cheap” Canon Rebel series positioned below the 40D would have made even Ansel Adams a little weak in the knees to think about.

A prime lens. The kit zoom lens that comes with many an SLR is handy and is better than no lens at all, but a trusty prime lens can be your best friend.  They’re generally light, generally fast, and generally affordable. The standard in 35mm film days was a 50mm lens (and this is what I learned with when using my old manual focus Pentax), though the “crop” sensors of many modern SLRs might pair better with something a little shorter (say, 35mm).  I use Canon’s excellent 50mm f/1.4 USM lens (costing a not-unattainable $450 CAN or so when new), but the 50mm f/1.8 (about $140 CAN) has a great reputation as “the plastic fantastic” because it’s incredibly light and incredibly cheap for the high degree of optical quality and useful wide (fast) aperture stops it provides. A prime lens requires more running back and forth to frame a shot than a zoom does, but makes up for that with allowing faster shutter speeds and better low-light performance for a given exposure than a zoom, which typically has a narrower aperture (and often one that gets narrower as you extend the zoom lens). The optical quality of prime lenses, being matched to a particular focal length, is also hard to match.  A relatively short prime lens is great to learn with, and small and light enough to pack easily or keep on your camera without weighing you down.  I always keep mine with me.

A tripod. Every photographer should have a tripod.  I mean, I won’t get in a fist fight over that proposition, but even with image stabilization technology and fast shutter speeds, there are simply times when it will be impossible to keep a camera steady enough for a critical shot if holding the camera in your hands. In a pinch, you can make do with a steady, level surface or even a friend’s shoulder to help keep the camera from moving too much (I’ve even used my own raised knee from a sitting position), but a tripod is one of the most useful and essential pieces of equipment can have. For nighttime shots and long (even if still only a fraction of a second) exposures, it is a necessity. A quick-release plate will make the process even more painless, since you can just snap your camera onto and off of the mounting head.  I have a lot of good things to say about adding a shutter release cable for rock-steady, perfectly sharp photos (especially macro, nighttime and/or “bulb mode” shoots), but it’s a luxury compared to the tripod itself.

A flash.  I have a Canon Speedlite — and I’m not gonna lie, it’s not a cheap one. It’s the 580 EX II, Canon’s top-of-the line flash (between $500 and $600 CAN new). You can only spend more money if you try to buy one of their dedicated ring macro flashes (and I haven’t, as much as I adore macro photography).  I justified this purchase on the basis that (1) I had a great deal of disposable income when I bought it three years ago, (2) it was insanely-well-reviewed, and (3) it allowed me to control off-camera flashes like the 430 EX II. It’s also practically silent, recycles quickly, has very good resistance to dust and moisture, and has the versatility in terms of output and head position that you can count on for beautiful and indirect flash lighting.  I’m beginning to learn about how to adopt the Strobist approach to lighting, and this flash hasn’t let me down.  It’s provided years of problem-free lighting, and promises to keep on giving. But any flash, preferably one that provides through-the-lens (TTL) exposure metering, will do.

There are, of course, photographers who will refuse to add flash to a scene, and who will shoot only with the available light in almost every circumstance.  I personally think this is a limitation more than it is a statement about talent, although you can achieve some wonderful shots with natural light (especially for portraits), and absolutely agree that  being able to work creatively with ambient light is a must for photographers.  Nevertheless, you do need light to take a photograph, no matter what the ISO speed of your camera.  As well, using flash lighting skillfully is about bringing light to an exposure without making it obvious the flash was used at all.  Indeed, when it comes to time and aggravation and screw-ups, knowing how to use a flash properly, and to take gorgeous photos with it, requires more of an investment than the price of the flash itself.  The aforementioned Strobist site is a great place to start, as is Neil van Niekerk’s site.

I think you can do without the plastic accessories like the Lightsphere or Omnibounce.  I have a $2 Omnibounce knockoff, but I use it only for specific lighting requirements, rather than as a crutch to avoid learning how to use my flash creatively and evocatively.  To do otherwise is to succumb again to the fallacy that a piece of gear can inherently make your photos great.  I make up for the lack of money spent on flash accessories by having a metric crapload of books on lighting and exposure (aside: I probably have some sort of book acquisition syndrome, but that’s a different post for a different blog).

A decent camera bag.  If it holds enough of your equipment to cover most anticipated needs, and can be comfortably lugged around all day, you’ve got the right bag.  You may or may not want to put some thought into buying a bag that does not explicitly look like a camera bag — this could help deter theft, and in any case allows you to blend into the background more.  I really like Lowepro’s “Classified” bags for this.  Mine holds all of my gear (for I really don’t rely on much), rides comfortably on my shoulder, and has room for a notebook computer (if and when I ever get to buy one of those). I bought mine ridiculously cheap on eBay, even without it being counterfeit.

If I could buy anything else at this point in time that, for me, I’d see as a necessity, I’d get a shoot-through umbrella and a stand for off-camera flash photography.  This is, however, only because of my skill level and interests at this point in time.  Such things are not for everyone.

I also have a few things that are nice but not necessary. These are:

A shutter release cable.  As I stated above, this goes great with a tripod for keeping your camera perfectly still when any vibration could ruin a shot (such as when keeping the shutter open for an especially long exposure or when using a macro lens). Combine it with locking up the SLR’s mirror before the shutter opens, and you minimize any risk of the camera vibrating.  It’s actually pretty amazing how much you can get the camera shaking just by pressing the shutter button or adjusting a setting.  Accordingly, I count to 10 before shooting if I’ve got the camera on a tripod and so much as touch a dial. Sometimes it’s the difference between perfectly sharp and slightly blurry.

A macro lens. I have Canon’s 100mm f/2.8 USM macro lens, and it is easily my favourite lens in the known universe.  You never tire of looking for small things to take intricately detailed and gorgeous photographs of.

A light meter.  I, personally, enjoy the use of an incidental light meter.  I have my camera set up to warn me if some highlights have been blown out by causing those areas to blink in the image preview. I can also read the histogram on my camera to identify over- and underexposed photos, and indeed almost every camera in use today has its own light meter. Even so, it’s a lifesaver in terms of time and effort. My camera is smart enough to know when a flash has been connected and powered on, and then attempts to set the correct exposure in every mode except manual (which is my preferred shooting mode), but I can meter my flash and the ambient light together with the hand-held meter for a much more accurate reading.  Some folks think they’re redundant now, but I don’t think their fire has gone out of the universe just yet.

A grey card.  As with the light meter, this can help you nail exposures but — just as critically — the card allows you to set an accurate white balance either at the time of the shoot or later on when using software like Adobe Lightroom.  The grey card bounces an even, neutral grey tone towards your camera lens, giving the built-in light meter (which relies on the light reflected towards the camera from the subject being photographed to determine exposure) a consistent, known target. Additionally, because the grey tone of the card reflects equal proportions of red, green and blue light, it is possible to calibrate the white balance of the scene in order to account for the type of light being used (e.g. tungsten lighting has a distinct yellowish cast that our eyes and brains easily adjust to so that we perceive whites as white and so on, but which cameras record faithfully as yellowish).

And the rest.The rest of my equipment includes a (used) Canon 24-105mm f/4 L lens, a flash bracket and an off-camera flash cord, lens hoods for each lens, and a polarizing lens filter for specific daylight situations. That’s pretty much it.  It all fits in one bag (except my tripod).  As I said, I put a lot of thought into each purchase, because I want that item to be helpful rather than an expensive encumbrance (or something else to dust because it doesn’t get used).  If I could add one more thing to my bag (aside from the aforementioned lighting setup, which wouldn’t fit anyway), it would be one of Canon’s 70-200mm lenses. The 70-200mm range is a very useful range of focal lengths, the various models (there are four: f/4 and f/2.8, two with and two without image stabilization) have great reputations, and my current lenses (while wonderful) don’t have the reach for some shots I want when doing candid/street/journalistic photography or photographing the wildlife. Also for spying.

(Kidding!)

The one thing I bought that could arguably be a product of the “biggest and best” gear obsession is my flash.  I could easily have gone with something on the lower end. That being said, it’s not more than I can use, I don’t rely on its size and price to somehow make me a better photographer or have bragging rights, and I’m not sorry it’s in my toolkit one bit.  I use it regularly and with a certain amount of pleasure because, when used properly, it (like any skilfully applied flash) can make an otherwise unattainable shot gorgeous.

For someone who believes that better equipment doesn’t inherently equate better photographs, I sure have talked a lot about gear lately.  This is probably it for now — I just wanted to make my viewpoints on the philosophy of photography clear as I introduce you to my website and this blog.

Which reminds me: my website, rbfairchild.com has been officially unveiled! Please check it out fully.  It showcases a lot of my current work, and links to my Flickr stream for viewing even more.  It also enables you to (ahem) buy prints.

Enjoy — and, as always, keep on truckin’ shootin’!

P.S. Is there anything you think I left out? Is there anything you’d disagree with? I’d love to know, so please leave a comment or contact me through rbfairchild.com!

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