On photography gear

Another Ottawa photographer, Jesse Hildebrand, wrote about what he wryly terms “gear acquisition syndrome,” or GAS, at his website:


It’s very easy to let cameras transition from tools into status symbols, one of the leading causes of GAS. It can be hard to be honest with one’s self, but if you find you’re more excited about showing off your new purchase to your friends than going out and shooting with it, it may have been a status purchase. Let your images be your status symbols, it’s much easier on the wallet and a great motivator to actually go out and shoot.
Impressing people with gear is a hollow pursuit and hard to maintain; in order to continue impressing people you have to continually sink more and more money into status purchases. Spending a lot of money on a new lens isn’t an accomplishment, but creating a truly unique and interesting image is something to be proud of. You can’t buy your way to creativity and skill, part of it is innate, but it needs to be cultivated, practiced and exercised. And impressing people with your images is self-sustaining; it will make you want to go shoot even more, giving you more images to impress with. In the end a camera is only as good as the person behind it and a lens left on a shelf takes no pictures.

I’ve been meaning to write about this even as my own site is still in progress (as of writing, I’m formatting photos for the galleries, but the body of the site is otherwise complete), but I came across this (somewhat circuitously) through a journey from the Apt613 Flickr stream to Jesse’s site and then to his blog and it seemed so serendipitous I just had to link to it and comment myself.

I am in complete agreement that, for too many, the acquisition of photography gear has become an end in and of itself rather than strictly being a rational and purpose-driven decision to add something to your toolkit that actually helps you take photographs.  It’s a bit crazy.  I understand that, for the beginning photographer, it is very tempting to find out about what other photographers are using and to want to incorporate the same cameras, lenses, and accessories into their own arsenal. I was in those shoes not so long ago, myself. Every expert photographer also has his or her list of “must-have” equipment, which can overly influence us.   Moreover, trying new techniques can also require you to buy equipment — a tripod, a reflector, a shutter release cable, and so on.

All of the above being said, however, gear alone won’t make you a better or more prolific photographer.  Gear bought reflexively because it is deemed to be the newest and best can actually become an encumbrance, in addition to being a waste of time and money.  For these reasons, I put a lot of thought and debate into a decision to buy a new piece of equipment –Why do I want it? Will I use it? How will it be used, and how often?  Could I get by without it for the photos I want to shoot?  Will it actually assist me in achieving the photographs I want to take?  The answers to these questions must be resolved before I’ll commit.

My most recent acquisition, and one I thought a great deal about, was a light meter.  Although nearly every camera sold these days includes its own light meter, I’d found myself frustrated with the limitations of a reflected light meter (that is, a meter that reads the light being reflected towards the camera from the subject), as it can be fooled by bright or dark scenes and objects.  An expert photographer might know how to compensate for the quirks of that meter, but this doesn’t (to me) take away from the fact that it is somewhat tiresome and irritating to second-guess your equipment — and, heck, I’m not perfect. I screw up exposures even when I do think I’m outsmarting the darn thing.  So, anyway, I bought a used (cheap!) Minolta Auto Meter IV F in perfect condition from eBay. It’s terrific; it helps me every time I use it.  I still apply my own judgment to a given exposure, based on my preference for the tone and depth of field of the shot, but the baseline “not too light, not too dark” exposure is easy to account for now, even when using my external flash (which the camera’s light meter doesn’t give a fig for).  It saves me time and helps me avoid under- or over-exposed shots or excessive test shots.  And that means less aggravation and less post-production.

With this philosophy in mind, all of my equipment — all of it — fits in one bag. It’s not a tiny bag, but it’s rugged and discreet (in that it doesn’t scream “Hey! There’s some great expensive crap inside me!”) and reasonable to carry around all day. I sling it over my shoulder when I go out, and carry my lenses, flash, light meter, batteries, cables, grey card, business cards, pens, model releases, and the rest. The only thing that doesn’t fit is my tripod.

I spend almost no time reading photography and equipment forums.  When the time comes to make a purchase, I will carefully consider reviews and perspectives from as many sources as I can identify, but otherwise I don’t have the time or inclination to read nerds arguing over which camera is the best because of X megapixels or Y ISO capacity or Z focus points (or whatever). In the past, I’ve read about people ditching all of their gear and moving from Nikon to Canon (or vice versa) or some other brand because of their perception that one company or other has the technological edge.  And the user has this unspoken need to possess the best because they believe this will finally get them the shots they are after.  I can’t conceive of that.

Being a long-time Apple and Mac nerd, I understand how easy it can be to succumb to the urge to read about (and drool over) the specifications of new products and to hold the line against those of a competing platform seeking to debate or besmirch the relative merits of your chosen brand. In the end, though, it’s just a distraction that doesn’t help you get things done in any way.  So I gladly avoid it.

I admit: my Canon 40D is now three years old, and I’m tempted to buy a full-frame camera like a 5D Mk II so that I can make better use of wide angles and take more shots in low-light situations, but even if I had gobs of disposable income I’m very mindful that the camera I have at this very moment takes excellent photographs.  I might like to have a huge sensor that can go up to ISO speed one million (or whatever it is that nerds on the internet will accept as the usable ISO limit these days), but my camera isn’t preventing me from taking excellent photos.  If anything, working within its constraints helps me continue to master proper exposure, because I can’t set it to ISO 25,600 and stop the lens down to a deeper depth of field to nail a shot in tricky circumstances.

I have three lenses — Canon’s 50mm f/1.4, 100mm f/2.8 macro, and the 24-105mm f/4L. They’re all terrific. I researched them all carefully before I bought them, and I use each of them frequently.  I’d add one or two more lenses if I could, and will one day, but my needs are largely met.  So I’m happy.  I don’t fuss over whether a given lens could be a bit sharper or faster compared to an identical lens from a different batch (or an equivalent from a different manufacturer).  I don’t post test ISO shots on forums, or comment on forums, or lurk on forums — if it isn’t about hands-on technique or a general philosophy/challenge of photographing in a certain context, I’m not going to bother unless I’m actively researching a new piece of equipment.

So let’s get out there and start taking some photos.

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