The Want of More Gear in Hopes of Becoming a Better Photographer
The route to becoming a better photographer isn’t the same as the route to making better photos. To become a better photographer, one must be able to perform without faltering, given sufficient knowledge, experience, and expertise in the face of limitations and suboptimal shooting conditions. In contrast, making better photos could potentially be accomplished by acquiring more gear and technology to compensate for an absence of knowledge, experience, and expertise, when limitations and suboptimal conditions are present.
In other words, accumulating more gear and technology can simplify difficult shooting situations. I mean, who needs knowledge, experience, or expertise, now that we have so many varieties of gear with higher ISO, more resolution, and increased dynamic range, in addition to image stabilization and faster autofocus that’s more precise and consistent in tracking. For that reason, all anyone needs to make a better photo is initiative, more digital gear, and editing software to cover up any shortcoming in documentation.
Of course, relying on the promise of more gear and technology doesn’t necessarily improve the probability of making better photos. In fact, it generally results in worse photos, given that a preoccupation on gear and technology lulls us from obtaining the knowledge, experience, and expertise required to become better photographers capable of taking better photos. Unsurprisingly, the internet is full of awful photos that is filled with the telltale signs of documentary shortcoming and subsequent attempts to make it better.
So, what do I mean by these telltale signs? Well, photo enthusiasts tend to skip the necessary steps for taking a better photograph. It begins as soon as they see a photo opportunity. Right away, they take the shot without thinking, owing to a misguided sense of urgency to capture the decisive moment. Because of that, they must rely on automatic metering to speed up the process. As such, the foreground is usually underexposed, since the background (being more dominant in metering) is generally one to two stops brighter in exposure.
To resolve that shortcoming, the underexposed image must be pushed one to two stops in post production in order to recover midtones swallowed up by the shadows. Unfortunately, pushing the exposure in post beyond a stop tends to result in reduced midtone details in recovery. For that reason, poorly captured photos pushed beyond a stop begin to look increasingly flat in contrast and saturation. As such, the look of these photos tend to be lifeless in appearance, with that unmistakable veneer of gray washed over the entire image.
Thankfully, there are shortcuts to add life back into a photo that has been pushed. Contrast and saturation can be bumped in post. However, darkness deepens in shadows and black clippings, as lightness strengthens in highlights and white clippings. As such, tonality in color or grayscale intensifies without subtlety in gradation, which makes the resulting image too conspicuous - like a clown caked-on with makeup. Thus unsatisfied with the recovery effort, the natural inclination is to seek comfort by switching or buying more gear.
I don’t want you to think that I’m unfairly picking on the want of more gear and technology. I mean if available and used properly, they can be truly indispensable. In fact, having new and improved gear can at times be the only reason why capturing a usable photo is possible - especially under difficult shooting conditions. Even so, does the potential offered by accumulating more gear and technology automatically result in better photos? And therein lies the crux of the discussion. No amount of more can boast such wishful guarantees.
The potential of taking better photos does not justify the want and accumulation of more gear and technology that you don’t already have. By acquiring more, it doesn’t mean you will take better photos. The route to taking better photos can only be achieved from being a better photographer - through the learning and practice of proper shooting fundamentals and observance of compositional norms. Only with knowledge, experience, and expertise can limitations and suboptimal shooting conditions be overcome in actual documentation.
For that reason, the want and accumulation of more gear and technology is very distracting for enthusiasts in search of finding the route to becoming a better photographer. Having too much inventory in gear is contrary to specialization. In other words, if you have too many cameras and lenses, you will probably never learn how to use them properly, much less rise to the occasion with knowledge, experience, and expertise when faced with limitations and suboptimal shooting conditions. You’ll probably end up with photos in need of editing.
For my sake, I can say that whittling down my inventory has enabled me to become more specialized with my preferred setup. I use one camera system, and I limit myself to a single fixed lens - at either 50mm, 35mm, or 28mm. And since I am a film photographer, I no longer have the benefit of high ISO in low light situations. As such, I also carry a flash with me. From this much simpler system, I have adapted to the limitations, which has required me to overcome difficult shooting situations with familiarity and repetition.
Furthermore, specialization has allowed me to slow down the perception of time during the documentation process. In doing so, I am much more patient behind the viewfinder before I commit to the decisive moment. Because of that, I’m no longer as plagued by photobombing passersby in the background. I can evaluate the world in-frame beyond my viewfinder with much greater scrutiny. In doing so, I am much more efficient in the documentation process, which means I shoot much less for each photo opportunity.
And it’s not just that. I’ve also become more accurate in metering owing to a sense of necessity from shooting color reversal (slide) film. In addition to that, I have also become intimately more familiar with my preferred three focal lengths, in terms of minimizing or optimizing distortion relative to compositional norms. And since I generally shoot in film, I am much more accustomed to slower shutter speeds, given much lower film speed. Because of that, my shooting fundamental has also improved out of practical necessity.
I suppose if I were to wear glasses during the documentation process, my focusing would be more accurate. That said, not wearing corrective eyewear has made me much faster in focusing. I am much more decisive in focusing, since I can never know with absolute certainty whether I’ve actually hit tack focus. Because of that, I never feather for focus, since what I see on the focusing screen is either blurry, very blurry, or less blurry. Not surprisingly, I generally cushion my accuracy by stopping down and knowing my shooting distance.
In all, I cannot say my ability to take better photos has suffered over the last couple of months. In fact, I’d argue that my ability has gotten better. Overall, incidents of photobombing, the number of frames shot, and errors in metering have all markedly decreased. Given greater accuracy, consistency, and efficiency in documentation, my dependency on editing software is less. Essentially, this means I don’t need to “make” better photos, since I can “take” better photos. Clearly, that suggests I’ve chosen the route to become a better photographer.
Seriously, refraining from acquiring gear and technology is not the end of the world. Making do with what you have is immensely liberating in expectation and satisfying in practice. The thing is, if you keep on worrying or wondering whether you have enough gear for every possible eventuality, you will never find the commitment to improve as a photographer, thinking that more gear and technology will make you better. Still, more can be better if there’s a need. But often, that need can be satisfied with knowledge, experience, and expertise.
You may be wondering why I have chosen this as my discussion topic this week. You see, I am regularly asked by readers whether they should buy or switch gear. For the most part, my best response is to ask them if they really need it, whereupon I typically follow up with a recommendation to hold off on any new commitment of purchase or trade. In my opinion, I believe the best advice I can offer anyone is learn to be satisfied with what they already have. Really, it’s that simple. Stop thinking about gear and go take some photos.
Frankly, this is why I do not share photos of gear on the blog. The want of gear is too strong and becomes too much of a distraction. As long as you’re taking photos, you’re doing yourself the best possible favor. And trust me, you will become a better photographer over time. You only need to review my progression over the last three years of blogging to bear witness on how much more beneficial regularity in documentation actually is, especially when compared to accumulating more gear. And if you shoot film regularly, even better!
FYI - on my Leica M9 vs Leica M10 CCD sensor comparison, I only shot 50 frames for a total of 31 images on that blog entry. That is the transformative effect that film photography has in making one more decisive and confident in documentation.
All images were tweaked on Adobe Lightroom and digitized on a Nikon Z6 + Nikon AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8G + Bolt VM-210 + Nikon ES-2. Some images were leveled and cropped for the sake of presentation.
PS - I am surprised how much I like Fujifilm Provia 100F. It really isn’t a bad film. Just wished Fujifilm or anyone else still made a ISO 400 color reversal film.
Last, I should really adjust the color balance on the Nikon Z6 next time. It does seem a tad too warm on the yellow-orange spectrum.