Note: This article also appears on the Photography Roundtable at www.photographyroundtable.com
At one time or another, every photographer will learn that it isn’t the photography gear you use that makes great photos. No matter how much money you spend on cameras, lenses, or accessories, great photography is the result of some combination of planning, technical knowledge, an artistic eye, and luck before the effects of gear come into play.
Many of us are affected by the desire to buy expensive photography gear, and, to be fair, I’m no exception. For some, this desire comes from the belief that that more expensive lens will provide that extra something that makes our photography great, while for others it’s a measure of utility: this piece of gear will give you the ability to take shots you’ve never been able to take before. Sometimes, the call of buying every shiny new piece of gear that comes on the market is just an irresistible impulse we can’t ignore. When it comes down to it, however, you just don’t need expensive gear to make great photos.
When I started learning landscape photography five years ago, I bought a Canon Rebel XS and an 18-55mm kit lens. At that time, I knew I was interested in photography and I knew I wanted to try taking photos of the night sky. I also knew that I was buying more camera than I needed at the time, but would be able to grow into it as my photography progressed. The first photo I ever took of the night sky was with that Rebel XS mounted on top of a telescope on my back porch, which I pointed towards a handful of dim stars in my light-polluted suburb in Massachusetts, and that photo was terrible. That photo would have been terrible if it was taken with a camera phone and it would have been terrible if it was taken with with a Sony A7R II. The only difference would have been that, with the A7R II, I would have had an extra 32 megapixels to show in fine detail just how awful and uninspired it was. It was so awful I’m not even going to post it here.
Set Goals and Invest in Education
For those starting out in photography, one of the best things you can do is to figure out how serious you are about your photography and how you want to progress with your craft. It’s also probably beneficial to take a good look in the mirror and decide how realistic it is that you stick with that goal. If your interests tend change every few months, it most likely isn’t the best idea to spend hundreds or thousands on gear that will collect dust if a new interest will soon take control over your free time.
For portrait photographers, a good understanding of lighting—both natural and otherwise—will be a much better initial investment than expensive gear. For landscape photographers, knowledge of composition and the best times to shoot are the main things that will separate your photos from an overflowing sea of travel shots and hiking images posted on social media. For any photographer, learning the ins and outs of the exposure triangle is a must before bothering to spend any additional money on gear. After first purchasing a camera—or even before purchasing one—spending $20 on a book that explains the basics of photography will ultimately be a far more valuable and cost-effective way to improve your work. I got two photography books when I first bought my camera—one of which focused on the basics of exposing a photo, and one focused on composing and taking a compelling photo: Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson and Within the Frame by David DuChemin. It’s not until your photography talent outweighs what your gear is capable of that you should start bargaining with your bank account about all of the shiny new things you think you should buy.
Do You Need New Gear to Overcome Limitations to Your Photography?
Sometimes the things that we think are limiting our photography may have a simple or inexpensive solution. In some cases, they may not actually be limitations at all.
If you think that you need to have more megapixels than everyone else, don’t forget to consider what your photos will be used for. Will they be printed or only be used online? Photos that are displayed on Facebook will display at a resolution of about 1.4 megapixels. Photos displayed on Instagram are less than 0.4 megapixels. The largest photo I display on my website is 1.5 megapixels. Any modern camera phone will have more than enough megapixels to handle those platforms.
When printing, keep in mind that viewing distance can often help to counteract a lack of resolution. The larger the photo is, the farther away from the photo most people will be when they view it. Good image quality when printing a photo is generally considered to be about 300 dots per inch (DPI). However, billboards are often printed as low as 12 DPI, because when was the last time you parked on the side of the highway, hopped the guardrail, climbed that billboard, and stared at it from 3 feet away to get a better look?
Even the limitations to your photography that serve as true obstacles often times have fairly simple workarounds. Landscape photographers limited by the megapixels of their cameras can stitch multiple photos into panoramas to increase resolution. Night photographers struggling with noisy images can stack photos to increase the signal-to-noise ratio. Photographers feeling limited by the dynamic range of their cameras can blend different exposure to capture the bright highlights and dark shadows of any given scene. Some of these processes may take some extra time, but learning a new technique to capture or process a photo is rarely a bad thing.
But I Really Need This Expensive [Insert Gear Here]!
I can’t possibly argue that a new gear purchase won’t ever be necessary or worthwhile. Gear exists for a reason. At some point, most landscape photographers will probably invest in a tripod, and most portrait photographers will invest in some type of lighting. The key is determining how necessary that new gear is to make better photos.
For the first three years I was learning photography, I was using a $15 tripod I got at my local Radio Shack. When I decided I needed a cable release for night photography, I bought one online that was priced for less than the cost to ship it. There are photos in my portfolio and on my website that were taken with that Canon Rebel and the rarely-complimented 18-55mm kit lens, and I dare you tell me with confidence which ones those are.
Eventually, I outgrew that $15 tripod—partially because I wanted one that could get my camera lower to the ground for new vantage points, and partially so I could splay each of its legs at different angles. I eventually settled on a $70 Dolica tripod because it fit my needs both for hiking and for travel. Don’t get me wrong—there are better tripods out there, but I really haven’t needed them.
Knowing When to Make Trade-Offs
At some point photographers are going to have a valid reason to upgrade gear. The key is having a clear idea of how that gear will directly improve your photography, and how much money you need to spend. For example, many third party lens companies are now making lenses that produce image quality almost as good as (and, in terms of image quality, sometimes better than) the name brands like Canon or Nikon, and provide an extremely compelling alternative to the more expensive lenses. For those who view their lens purchases heavily based on initial cost, a well-built third party lens such as the Sigma Art series could provide serious value. If I spend $850 on a Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art lens that has comparable image quality to the $1,900 Nikon 24mm f/1.4 equivalent, I not only still get a great lens, but I free up $1050 that could be spent elsewhere on my photography (or, you know…on bills or loans…). When I mentioned this to a friend recently, he argued to me that he’s always been able to resell his Nikon lenses for about the amount he paid for them, which he wouldn’t think would be true of a third party lens like a Tokina, Tamron, or Sigma. In short, this may be true. For those who want to view their lens purchases as a long-term investment with the resale value of that glass in mind, purchasing a lens from a name brand may be a wiser choice on the back end. However, as the quality of third party lenses by makers like Sigma and Tamron improve, this potential gap in long-term value may begin to close.
The most important things to consider when finding value in your gear purchases, especially for professional photographers for whom time directly equates to money, are the quality of the gear and if it will save you time in your workflow. Last year, I tried the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 for Milky Way photography after hearing other astrophotographers rave about its quality and sharpness, but with the caveat that bad copies of the lens certainly do exist. The Rokinon 14mm is a fully manual lens that typically sells for somewhere between $250 and $350 and handles coma very well, making it ideal for ultra-wide angle astrophotography. Compare that to the Canon 14mm f/2.8 which has problems with coma in the corners of the image and retails for more than five times as much money.
After trying three copies of the Rokinon—all of which were de-centered and/or couldn’t focus to infinity—I gave up and decide that I will be buying a more expensive lens for night photography next year. By that point, it didn’t matter how good of a value the lens was supposed to be. If the poor quality control and build quality associated with the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 meant that I never had a working copy in my possession when the new moon rolled around, that money I saved lost me time and possibly the opportunity at a great photo. For that reason, for the coming year I’ll be grabbing a new Milky Way lens, but it will still most certainly be a third party lens that will save me hundreds if not thousands of dollars off the name brand equivalent. At the same time, however, for a hobbyist night photographer that simply wants to capture the Milky Way and share it online—or is even just willing to deal with the hassle of trying to get an adequate copy of the lens—I would still recommend that Rokinon 14mm over a more expensive alternative.
For those looking to take advantage of the last minute holiday sales to either take the plunge into photography of upgrade your gear, take a close look at if and how your purchase will affect the quality of your photography and, if it matters to you, how much more efficient it will make your workflow. If you're trying to justify a purchase based on need, there may be cheap or free alternatives that can get you the results you're looking for. If you just plain want that shiny new piece of gear, however, I'm not going to try to stop you. Just know that, to make great photos, you don't need expensive gear.
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