Posted by: kerryl29 | July 11, 2016

Thematic Interruption: Photo Gear–Important, But Greatly Overrated

 “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”  —  Ansel Adams

On a couple of photo forums that I check with some degree of regularity, there are discussions currently taking place about particular gear upgrades (specifically whether action–sports, wildlife, etc.–photographers should upgrade to the new Nikon D500 or stick with the less expensive D7200).  I’m not an action photographer, so the discussion really doesn’t apply to me, but the prevalence of the should-I-upgrade question reminded me of a general principle that applies to many–though not all–styles of photography regardless of specifics:  gear is grossly overrated in terms of its role in producing satisfying photographs.

South Beach Sunset, Curry County, Oregon

South Beach Sunset, Curry County, Oregon

*                   *                     *

Any baseball fans here?  (Besides me, I mean.)  For years and years, I told anyone who would listen that Derek Jeter was one of the most overrated baseball players of my lifetime.  This statement annoyed a lot of people, particularly fans of the New York Yankees, the team for which Jeter played for his entire long career.

“How can you say that Derek Jeter isn’t (wasn’t) a good player?” these folks would insist.

My response would be something along the lines of:  “I didn’t say he wasn’t a good player.  He was a very good player.  If I had a vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame, I’d select Jeter on the first ballot.”

This would ordinarily be met by several seconds of silence and a confused look.  And then I would say “Jeter is a good player.  He’s just not nearly as good as many people credit him with being.”

It’s true, at least in my opinion.  There are a lot of Yankees fans who think Jeter is one of the five best players of all-time.  A few have told me, with a straight face, that he’s clearly the best player ever to play the game.  Both claims are, in my view, utterly absurd.  And that’s why I say he’s overrated:  he’s not as good as a lot of people seem to think.

*                   *                     *

What am I talking about?  What does any of this have to do with photography?  I’m coming to that.

Just as Jeter was a very good–but overrated–baseball player, photo gear is a very important–but overrated–part of photography.  The broad lesson is, “overrated” doesn’t necessarily mean bad or irrelevant.  It simply means that something isn’t as good (or important) as it’s often viewed.

Lufty Baptist Church, Smokemont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

Lufty Baptist Church, Smokemont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

When it comes to landscape photography, I’ve never run across a camera that has made me a better photographer.  Never.  I’ve upgraded cameras because they’ve enabled me to make better (and larger) prints (due to better resolution, better dynamic range and so forth), but that’s hardly the same thing.

When it comes to lenses, I have to admit that, at one point, adding a lens that allowed me to do something I couldn’t do before–a wider angle, for instance, or a longer telephoto–might arguably have made my photography better…but I’m still not sure that this is really the same thing as making me an inherently better photographer.  The vision and the technical knowledge and experience needed to produce the photograph are effectively independent of the equipment used.

Pre-Sunrise, Bear Rocks Preserve, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahla National Forest, West Virginia

Pre-Sunrise, Bear Rocks Preserve, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahla National Forest, West Virginia

Gear is important.  We need it to make photographs.  Occasionally a camera feature (auto bracketing, for instance), can make it easier to accomplish a specific task needed to produce images than would be the case otherwise.  But it’s not nearly as important as many people seem to think.  Particularly when it comes to landscape photography, a new, “better” camera isn’t going to make you a better photographer.  It may–may–allow you to produce images of a higher technical quality.  But aesthetic quality?

Lone Pine, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Lone Pine, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

The question people pondering a gear upgrade should be asking themselves is why am I considering buying this camera (or lens or accessory)?  If the answer, at least for landscape photographers, is “because it’s going to allow me to make more compelling images,” it’s time to rethink that potential purchase.

You need gear to execute your vision.  But first and foremost you need a vision to execute, and all the latest and greatest expensive gear in the world isn’t going to help with that.

Earthshadow, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Earthshadow, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

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Responses

  1. I love this pic it is pretty

  2. More great work, Kerry.

    • Thanks very much!

  3. You sure make a compelling case for resisting the siren song of the camera manufacturers who try to convince us that better gear will make us better photographers–the same is true for many other consumer products, alas.

    • Indeed. There’s obviously a vested interest for the manufacturer to plant the notion in the mind of the customer that the only thing standing in the way of better (fill in the blank–in this case, photographs) is a new, better widget. Sometimes this sentiment is expressed explicitly. Sometimes it’s a bit more subtle. Either way, the message is, buy Product X and all your problems will be solved.

  4. Love the images….nor an I bothered what make/model camera was used. But if I had to give one piece of advice on choice (irrespective of make or genre of photography) I would say do not rush in for the very latest top spec model even if you have deep pockets and can throw money at it. Wait for two things that always happen 1. The price will drop. 2. an alternative model sporting same sensor and processor engine will be offered. OK it may not have every gizmo of its higher specked fore runner but I guess very few pro’s actually use all of those ‘extras’…..and don’t get downcast or feel second best when the next upgrade comes along…..just do what you are supposed to do with it, ‘take pictures that appeal to you’

    • Agreed. A little patience will almost always result in personal financial benefit.

      I think the key, when even contemplating a new purchase, is to ask yourself why, exactly, you want (or, worse, think you “need”) this new piece of equipment. Then, be brutally honest with yourself when answering. You still may end up making the purchase, but at least you can feel confident that it will be for the right reason(s).

    • There is a third reason not to rush in to buy the newest, latest, greatest camera. There will be bugs in it and you want others to be the guinea pigs.

  5. Terrific work, Kerry. Agree about the lure of upgrading- better to keep on shooting and honing one’s skills. I love your Lone Pine at Bryce— need to get back there.

    • Thanks, Jane. Completely agree with what you wrote about the greater priority of enhancing one’s abilities.

      Re Bryce…I think one of the most attractive aspects of photographing from the amphitheater rim is isolating features with a long lens. But that’s just me. 🙂

  6. Another possibility is that photo gear might make one think they’re a better photographer. I was convinced I was the next Ansel Adams when I ran around with a Kodak Instamatic in the late 60s, for example.

    • Imagine how you’d have felt if you were running around with a Polaroid; maybe like a hybrid of Ansel Adams and Elliot Porter. 🙂

  7. Amazing photos and good advice. I particularly love the pre-sunrise photo!!

  8. Thoughtful post, Kerry, and I couldn’t agree more. For me, the gear that is the most transparent, i.e. that I can use with as little preoccupation with it, is the best. It is all about learning to see, isn’t it, and then learning to translate it through whatever camera you are using. That said, like a fine musical instrument, some cameras do enhance your technique and make it easier to realize the vision.

    • Thanks, Lynn.

      To be honest, I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt that a camera–any camera–really did anything for my technique. I think adapting a tripod to my in-field workflow–something I began doing 18 or 19 years ago–has had more of a role in this regard….but even then, it was adding a tripod, generically, rather than a specific model that made the difference.

  9. Fabulous photos!

  10. I’m GOBSMACKED by the brilliance of these photos. Great essay, too. 🙂

    • Thanks, Frank. Much appreciated!

  11. That lone pine at Bryce Canyon… When I saw it, I couldn’t breathe. The only word I can think of to describe it is primal.

    As to equipment: the analogy that came to mind is baking. You need certain tools to make a cake: an oven, pans, ingredients. But you also need knowledge of how those ingredients work together, and some basic skills. If your cakes keep falling, no matter what you do, you might need a new oven, but it’s more likely you just need to follow the recipe more closely. 🙂

    • Thanks. There’s a tendency at Bryce to focus one’s attention exclusively on the hoodoos (and understandably so), but my favorite approach, when standing on the canyon rim, was to scan the area and pick out little, isolated details (like the pine tree amid the “lunar surface” that is the upper part of the amphitheater).

      BTW, your baking analogy isn’t one that I’d have thought of myself, but it certainly is apt.

  12. Let me start by saying that I still think that you’re one of the finest landscape photographers whose work I’ve seen!

    I also agree 100% with the premise of this post when it comes to landscape photography, you can’t buy vision, and the best equipment on the market can’t produce a stunning image like yours on its own.

    But, when it comes to wildlife, and I would imagine sports photography, then it’s an entirely different ballgame. The photographer needs a completely different skill set to get close to the wildlife in the first place, then faster auto-focusing and rapid frame rate do become almost as important as the photographer. I get so close to some birds that I can see them breathing, and I try to time my shots to the times when they are at full inhale or exhale, because my images are slightly sharper if I can pull that off.

    • Oh, I completely understand that with action photography something like a larger buffer or a more robust AF system might mean the difference between obtaining or missing a shot entirely. That’s why I specifically referenced landscape photography in the entry.

      But, no question, when it comes to action shooting, all other things being equal, certain camera features and gear upgrades can improve your “hit rate” when photographing.

  13. Oh my! I’ve fallen in love with another one of your shots! The Bryce Canyon Lone Pine image. I always thought that particular park was too gaudy and almost too surreal to appeal (my personal taste, I know lots of folks who don’t agree), but you certainly changed my mind with your talent for the softer vision.

    • Thanks, Gunta.

      If you’re ever back at Bryce, take the road (SR 63) south, past all the amphitheater overlooks. You’ll find a very different environment than the endless hoodoos of the amphitheater. (Also check out Fairyland Canyon, which is north of the amphitheater, down a short side road.) If you take UT 63 all the way to the end of the road at Rainbow Point, you’ll find the Bristlecone Pine trail which is well worth the short, easy hike:

      http://www.lightscapesphotography.com/p1043627163/h61588279#h61588279

      • Thanks very much for the suggestions. The “endless hoodoos” is a pretty good description of the impression I was left with from several visits to Bryce.

        • After awhile, from the amphitheater rim, it can feel as though you’re viewing/photographing the same thing over and over and over again. If you’re lucky enough to catch snow there, it can help. So can hiking down into the canyon (if you’re prepared to deal with the rigors of the climb out). But the last time I was there, in lieu of something new, I cut my visit short by a day and spent my time down the road in Red Canyon instead.

  14. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve taken some fantastic shots on a little $99 digital pocket camera. Vision and catching the moment trump gear every time. Not that I don’t love my 60 zoom!

    • There’s a longstanding saying that applies: the best camera is the one you have with you. It’s kind of a complement to “f/8 and be there.”

  15. Nice photo it’s dream 😊

  16. Great post!

    Exactly what I am trying to change on my humble blog with my last post (https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/52600374/posts/1141907115)… get off all the gear talk and talk photography!

  17. Smashing set of photos. They are all superb, my favourite is the last one.

    • Thanks very much!

  18. […] including a format change (which necessitated some new lens purchases)  along the way.  And while I maintain that none of those upgrades made me a better photographer, they did allow me to make substantially better prints, with each and every […]


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