Towards Mastery. Again.

In Postcards From..., Rants and Sermons, Travel, Wallpapers by David52 Comments


It’s been a while since I’ve posted a desktop wallpaper, I’m hoping this makes up for the absence. Enjoy! Photographed this morning on the Maasai Mara, Kenya.

In a few days, or so, I’ll publish some thoughts about my mirror-less experiment in Africa. This is the preamble: none of it will make you a better photographer. Collect all the gear you like. Gear’s good. And it’s necessary. But isn’t it possible we’ve passed the point of diminishing returns and our hunger for gear is outpacing our hunger for beauty, compelling stories, great light, and amazing moments?

The other day someone left a comment on my Facebook page, an astute observation about this constant gear chase – the pursuit of new, better, shiny – some of us wrestle with so much on what we hope is a path to something like mastery. It’s had me thinking since then, bouncing around the Maasai Mara, making photographs and considering my own process and the place gear has within it. The comment was along these lines: that the more we chase gear, upgrade to new cameras, etc., the less chance we have at mastering our tools.

“Isn’t it possible we’ve passed the point of diminishing returns and our hunger for gear is outpacing our hunger for beauty, compelling stories, great light, and amazing moments?”

What would happen if we stuck with one camera for 10 years instead of switching it up every 2 or 3? How comfortable would that tool become in our hands if we’ve held it, and used it day-in and out, for longer than the now predictable cycle of planned obsolescence? And in that comfort, how much more would that gear get out of the way and allow us to do our work, making photographs? How much better would our images be if we remained in the moment instead of trying to remember which damn button or dial or menu setting we needed and where to find it on the new camera with more options than most photographers will ever, ever, need.

The best tool is the one that does the job you need it to do, in a way that’s so intuitive, or learned, that it now feels like a natural extension of our bodies. I know I’m setting myself up as a technophobe here but: enough already. Our ISOs are high enough. Our sensors large enough. Our glass sharp enough. The biggest lie we can listen to, or worse, tell ourselves, is that a bigger, newer, shinier, camera will make better photographs. If my photographs are made that much better by less noise, wall-sized prints, or slightly less chromatic aberration, then either my photographs are already so profoundly moving that I don’t need better gear, or they’re total rubbish. I suspect the latter.

I’ve said before that photographers have an unusual relationship with their gear. It’s true, better gear (define that yourself) can make our lives easier. It allows us to deliver what clients need, or think they need. In some cases, it allows us to make a photograph we might not otherwise have been able to make (rarer than some people think). I get that. But I am so sick of people telling me it’s always the pros with the fancy gear preaching these sermons, and therefore implying that the argument is ironic at best and irrelevant at worst.  Sure, it’s easy for him to say, he’s got a _____________. If a photographer you respect has fancy gear and tells you he’s spent thousands on that gear and it only makes his life easier, not his photographs more compelling, then he’s exactly who you should listen to. I don’t have to be the one to say it; plenty have said it before me, so I’ll get in the back of the line and just add my voice to the choir.

“The biggest lie we can listen to, or worse, tell ourselves, is that a bigger, newer, shinier, camera will make better photographs.”

The constant acquisition of gear in the hopes that it will be the magic wand that makes it all better is not only unnecessary and expensive, it can get in the way of the path most of us hope to tread. I like cameras. I like to play with them. I like the gear and I’ve got more than enough of it. My recent experiments with smaller gear have come mostly from necessity because I just can’t haul the big gear everywhere I go anymore. I’ve had fun with the Fuji XE-1 and Leica M that I’m traveling with right now. But I am under no illusions that this gear will make my images better in a way that means anything to me. And every time I get new gear the learning curve means I’m busy learning new gear, not how to be a better photographer: the difference is immense.

What will make my images better is more time with my cameras in my hand. Using my tools until they just fit and do what I want without a thought, the way my Leica already does because it’s so similar to cameras I used years ago that I feel like I’ve just put on an old pair of jeans – and that’s worth more to me than the ability to make a 48 megapixel photograph at ISO 16ooo. What will make better photographs is studying photographs themselves, not the ads for gear in the latest photography magazine. Photographs are made better by curious, patient, passionate, people with vision and imagination, not sharper glass. To paraphrase Ansel Adams – if the idea is crap then it doesn’t matter how big or sharp it is. Nobody cares how much damn chromatic aberration there is in your photograph; we care if there’s no heart.

So buy a Fuji if it makes your life easier as it has for me. Buy an old film camera or a Phase One if you’ve got the cash for that, but if you expect it to change your photographs more than the longer path of becoming a better photographer, save your money. How much better would our work be if we stopped relying on new gear and put our creative energy into new work, and new ideas. The best work of the last century was made on cameras that don’t rival the advancements of all our new technology. You have in your hands more tech than Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray and Karsh and Lange and Weston and Rowell combined. If you’re not making work that moves others like the work of those that went before you, having so much less gear, and so fewer options, perhaps it’s not about the gear at all.

“And every time I get new gear the learning curve means I’m busy learning new gear, not how to be a better photographer: the difference is immense.”


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  3. Rant away David – I don’t believe anyone should be criticised for feeling passionate about something, let alone for expressing those passions so honestly. We all love kit and value the opinions of an expert in our field – but such assessments are not that difficult to find when compared with the expression of heartfelt conviction about the need for feeling and inspiration and creativity – a rare beast by comparison.
    I’m interloping here because I’m not a photographer. (I take photos but that’s not the same thing). I paint. The gear may be less expensive but oh, the endless variety and availability of it! The temptation to keep shopping for all that glorious stuff – and, here’s the rub – the promises that come with it! But sooner or later you have to stop shopping (and believing the hype) and understand that the only thing that makes you better is thinking hard about what you want to achieve and working, constantly, towards it. Like anything worth doing it’s the endless practice that makes the most difference. Until the kit and the techniques are second nature they won’t begin to serve the ideas and the vision.
    I love what you have to say about inspiration, about appreciating what you’re seeing and how it makes you feel, about the need to work at anything you want to be good at: “Art may be conceived during a hedonistic bohemian love-in with the muse, but it comes into the world, like any birth, with labour.”
    A quote you may recognise – which is copied onto the first page of every sketch and notebook, to remind me what it’s REALLY all bout.
    Keep reminding us David, we need you.

  4. Bravo – I coudn’t agree more, especially “The biggest lie we can listen to, or worse, tell ourselves, is that a bigger, newer, shinier, camera will make better photographs.” We’ve lost the ability to capture soul. Thanks for this have shared it widely.

  5. I agree with everything you say David but there is still an exception that I apply to my own photography. These sorts of discussions about gear hardly ever mention wildlife photography (or sports photography). I personally would say that buying the latest 5D mk3 and 7D Canon bodies has helped me get better wildlife photos (like you I have been to the Mara and other places) as the modern AF systems are a massive improvement. And yes I know that back in the day wildlife photography was done with manual focus but it took highly skilled and experienced photographers who I am sure had a lower success rate. The modern gear has narrowed the gap for amateurs like myself. For general photography/landscape whatever though I agree basic camera’a are fine. I sometimes wish I didn’t do wildlife photography so I could downsize my bodies and lenses:)

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  8. With every new body and ‘toy’ I face a new learning Curve. I’m not one to constantly seek more and more pixels. What I’d like to see is the current technology made rock solid and the image quality be the touchstone instead. What I have learned is what I can (or better) what I can NOT do with the technology of the cameras I have in my hand at any moment. …especially what I can NOT do. 🙁 So, yes, I am constantly tempted by the Whiz Bang. 🙂 but my bank balance can’t handle the temptations especially as I do this photography ‘thing’ as a pasttime, a diversion, an artistic expression and so consequently it’s all outlay and not income.

    1. Not that it really matters but it does speak somewhat to your posting. I shoot Canon gear and the only real reason I went this way was that a past member of a photoclub I belonged to was selling his Canon A2 film camera with 3 lenses and he graciously allowed me to pay him in installments. So once you get into a particular system, especially if there are lenses involved you tend to stick with a manufacturer. I’ve been happy with this decision for the most part and nary gave a thought to switching but I must admit that the lighter Fuji gear has got my attention now. I have an issue with my left hip now so dragging my DSLR and Lenses is a hardship that makes me want to get in/get out as fast as I can. Do I miss opportunities because of the weight and bulk? Yup. 🙁 But for now I’ll suffer through until I’ve stashed enough dollars away to look at changing ships.

  9. David: Great post. Now, can you tell us about your experience with the “X cameras”? 🙂

    Seriously, the underlying philosophy is great. But as a long-time amateur enthusiast, I look to gear reviews for advice because buying a new piece of equipment is usually a big investment, and hearing what pros have to say about this piece or that is a huge part of my evaluation process.

    I especially keen to hear about your experience with the Fuji X system. I have lugged heavy DSLR equipment on trips abroad many, many times, thinking that’s the only way I’m going to get the really good photos that I want to keep, print, and treasure. But that experience is getting really old, especially as I get older. The Fuji lineup seems to be hitting all the right checkboxes, but I’m still waiting to hear from you and pros like you before pulling the trigger.

    thanks for all your great work.

  10. Enjoyed the rant David! I think many photographers are getting tired of being tempted by manufacturers taunting new camera models before us every couple of years. Anyway now that I am retired I can’t afford to be tempted!

    I bet the camera manufacturers don’t like you message 😉

  11. thanks for the great wallpaper photo!
    and a good article, a good reminder.

    it’s so easy to get sucked into the gear world.
    it’s always ‘just one more little thing.’
    we must constantly remind ourselves of what we’re trying to do,
    let go of this obsession with shiny objects;
    let ourselves breathe, and think, and see.

    thank you again.

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  13. I completely agree, David. The constant response when I’m teaching photography classes is the their camera is JUST a ________. It’s not JUST that type of camera! The camera you have, even if it isn’t equipped with endless capabilities, is enough! You don’t need endless ISO and 50 lenses. Learn about the camera you have until you can adjust it without looking. Master the two or three lenses you have to develop fantastic composition! New gear syndrome has made us ashamed of our cameras if they are 3 years old. And it’s sad! Love your camera and your photo results with love you back! I feel the love.

  14. Some of what you talked about gear vs vision posts, like this one, sounds at least a bit no sincere. Yes, I agree: “… every time I get new gear the learning curve means I’m busy learning new gear, not how to be a better photographer….”, that’s truth. What you do not take into consideration, that most of the people would upgrade within the line of cameras for example, get a better Nikon, or a better Canon, decreasing the learning curve significantly. In your case, every year or so, you move to totally new tool. Yet, you try to convince people not to do same thing. “Do as I say, not as I do”? How many people fall for that?!

    1. Author

      I think you’re mis-understanding my situation, Iza. First, I’ve been photographing for almost 30 years, a benefit many of my readers do not yet have, so my transition to new gear comes much further down the line. I think, quite contrary to being insincere, I’m telling the truth when I say that even at 30 years, a change in gear slows me down. As for changing systems every “year or so”, I’m curious how you came to this conclusion. I switched back to Nikon a couple years ago after using Canon for several. I now happily use my Nikon D3s and D800 and have no plans to switch. I work these cameras hard and I know them well. But my accident in Italy has forced me to look for smaller, lighter, gear. That is the journey I am on now, with all its pros and cons.

      If you feel I am the kind of teacher that teaches a “Do as I say, not as I do” then I apologize, but you might want to find a teacher whom you feel has more integrity, but I’ve never once said I don’t share in the same struggles as most of my students. In my experience, people want – and fall for, as you say, vulnerability and transparency, not perfection.

      1. Interesting reply, David. Made me think a bit more about it. I think the argument of 30 years behind you is a weak one, I am not convinced, it’s like years of experience make your constant look for a better tool I don’t know, justified? While if you have 2 years of experience- it means you cannot know what you want yet. People change gear for many reasons- sometime, you just need this higher ISO, and sometimes the menu options are just not intuitive.
        I do like, however, the argument of lighter weight – I think many of us consider leaving heavy DSLR behind.

  15. David; Hello from New Zealand my winter home away from B.C. I’ve been impersonating and outdoor photographer for the past 35 years and like and appreciate your take on it all. A beautiful trout river, a good friend to share it with, and a Fuji XE-2 is all I need.


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  17. What a great post David and, as usual, you continue to add more “signal” to an otherwise “noisy” world of the photo blogosphere! Your article reminded me of the veteran photojounalist David Burnett who pretty well captures the ethos of being a master at his craft while using some “old tools”. In his case, he creates some awe-inspiring images with an original Canon 5D, a 4×5 Speed Graphic and a Holga!


  18. Great post and always good to remind us that it is not the gear but the “Vision” to quote. It certainly has always been a valid point and as Edward Weston said: “The fact is that relatively few photographers ever master their medium. Instead they allow the medium to master them and go on an endless squirrel cage chase from new lens to new paper to new developer to new gadget, never staying with one piece of equipment long enough to learn its full capacities, becoming lost in a maze of technical information that is of little or no use since they don’t know what to do with it.”


  19. Enjoyed this article and you are 100% correct. You might check some of my posts on the Fuji X100 websites to see what I have written. Also, my film: “X100: 1 Year, 1 Mile, 1 Lens” might interest you. A B&W project shot close to home to “free” my vision by limiting it. The description on the YouTube page will explain more. Let me know if you watch it. Here is the link:

  20. This may be a little off topic, but as I read this, I’m scratching my head, wondering who all these people are incessantly talking about gear. I’m guessing that for you, as a well-known photographer and teacher, the gear question must come up a lot for you to respond to it here as often as you do. For me, not so much.

    So I’ve been thinking about why some people are always thinking about gear, and while others aren’t as much. And I have a general theory – the more you go out looking for information on new stuff, the more you will become dissatisfied with what you have and want the new stuff. It doesn’t matter if the stuff is houses or cars or photography gear. If you go to the auto show, you will likely see all that’s wrong with your current car and will want a new car. If you visit model homes, you will want all those new finishes and features, starting to see your current home as dated. If you read lots of camera equipment reviews, you might find yourself wanting that new lens or camera body or whatever… when if you weren’t reading that information, if you were out making photographs instead, the thought of that new gear might never enter your mind. Until, that is, you run into a limitation, and then the gear may solve a problem for you. But then it’s a real need, not a need manufactured by the marketing. Because, let’s face it, marketing is often about making you want something you don’t need. And we have a choice, in many situations, to limit our exposure to the marketing.

    So I wonder, could that be one factor driving the gear conversation? Can it be where and what kind of information people regularly see? What are the other factors driving this gear need? Because I personally don’t understand it or where it is coming from.

  21. Amen and Amen.

    I use my cameras like I use my cars – until they aren’t worth fixing. I used two old SLR Nikons for 16 years. Gave them up with they both jammed within 6 weeks of each other.

    Finally went DSLR and am still using my first one. I mean, unless I’m shooting for very large prints, why? (Of course, I’m not a pro so I’m not under a lot of pressure to keep up with the newest, latest, greatest.)

    What I really want is a DSLR that has nothing but the dials and buttons of my old SLR. I loathe scrolling through menus. With my old SLRs I never had to look at the camera. My brain kept track of where settings were and my fingers could make the changes as needed – in the dark, without looking. (I shot a lot of live performances.)

    Part of my resistance to buying new gear, is my lack of enthusiasm for the hardware design. I LOVE the digital darkroom. Hate the physicality of the cameras.

    I am struggling though with Nikon’s announcement of a retro DSLR that might just tempt me to spend a lot more money than I’d like just to have that old simplicity again. Crazy.

  22. Well spoken. I think gear is just the tool to make photographs. But the photograph is made behind the camera. If gear would matter, than frames taken nowadays would be so much better than frames taken 50 years ago. But if I take a look on Ansel Adams I feel that is not true at all. Or even older photos from Michael Kenna. Photographs should have a soul or a spirit. If they are not crystal sharp to the last pixel, who cares. The composition and the feelings transported by a frame a much more important.

    Thanks for the wallpaper. Would love to go back to Africa…

  23. I am not sure about it being a good analogy, but I try to imagine the above conversation being instead between artists about brushes and paint etc. No matter what “they” say about you David, you are a thought provocateur!!! Being you. I am not in synch with everything you say- – but you do stir things up….and maybe sometimes not…what the heck?

    The GAS is so intense sometimes…I had to almost wrestle myself to the floor to decide to get a great deal on a used silver and black x100s vs. the new all black one, trying not to believe that the black one would probably take better pictures. God help us all.

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  25. Good thinking, certainly not rant! We all don’t need to wait for 5 years, but being sensible about your gear and how often it needs to be replaced makes sense. Thinking as much or more about making better images than getting the next version gear also makes sense. To each his own!

  26. No one ever seems to mention Rowell as someone to learn about or from.
    Nice to see him mentioned.

  27. I agree with your post that gear doesn’t make your photographs better. From my personal experience I would just add that you do need to be confident in your gear and it must fit with your workflow. About two years ago I upgraded my camera because the one I had was severely restricting what I was trying to accomplish and what I was expecting from my camera. Once I made the switch my confidence went up and it opened up more learning opportunities allowing me to be more creative. As a consequence I also felt more confident to push myself even further artistically.

  28. Rant
    This post sounds like a rant to me. Who are these mythical “they” that say better gear makes better photographs?
    Are you reacting to the interest we’ve shown in your new gear?

    I really like your passion and the clarity you bring to the process of creating photographs. You have a great way of communicating and I’ve benefited/am benefiting much from your books and videos.
    But this post doesn’t feel like your teaching/sharing.

    I like technology, especially shifts in technology. I like to keep up with new stuff in phones, PCs, and photography. I find new technology makes some things easier, but at the end of the day they are tools that I use to get things done. And the “getting done” is what drives me ultimately.

    I think one of the main reasons we/I talk about technology is because it’s an easier conversation that talking about “what I want to get done”. Especially in photography where we are/I am so lacking in the language and conscious thought processes. It’s far easier to discuss the objective pixels, ISO, features than the unstated vision.

    So three requests:
    1. Please avoid rants – they don’t help me.
    2. Please share you technology experience – I’m interested in new stuff and how it works.
    3. Please, please, pretty please keep making the art of photography clearer and communicable – I need the models/concepts and language.

    1. Rant?

      This article is all about photography not gear. Everybody has a choice of not reading if it doesn’t apply to them.

      David, please continue posting these very insightful articles.

    2. Author

      Thanks Bill, unfortunately (a) I speak to a broader audience, many of whom need to be reminded of these things, myself included, (b) this post was placed intentionally in the Rants & Sermons category and I’ve no intention of holding back once in a while, so I’ll ask you forgiveness ahead of time, and (c) I promise to do what I can to keep communicating as I do, without sacrificing my own need to rant once in a while. We all have our weaknesses. 😉

  29. Love the image David.

    Another consideration, not having the most expensive camera, yet having a “good camera” that you know intimately makes you work within a certain set of “limitations” which force you to use all your creative fire to create within those limitations.

    Those very, so called limitations, when faced head on, can produce some very wonderful images.

    Personally, I shoot with Olympus “four thirds“ cameras, which some look at with disdain, but all the same principals of composition, framing, and vision apply and I know my cameras like the back of my hand. I don’t have to think about it and some of my best images are “spontaneous.” If I had to stop and look for the buttons, the shot would have been long gone.

    You David, are one of the few pros brave enough to deal with the mad marketing schemes of the large camera industry.

    To create is beautiful, to buy is something else entirely!

  30. Great post and wise words. I just gave my old Canon 400D away to my niece and realised how familiar I was with it when I was explaining to her what each button did. The temptation of upgrading to a new Canon DSLR is always there, but I’m happy to wait it out for another 12-18 months and instead focus on mastering my Fuji X100 and X-E1 inside out and making better and different photographs with those. Towards mastery again indeed!

  31. What a meaningful and well thought post. When the Olympus om-d em5 first came out my husband bought that for me to replace my old canon. I wanted ‘new gear’ only because the old one simply wasn’t doing what I needed or wanted. Have to say, I’m in love with my Olympus! And, I have no plans to ever replace it. As you say in your post, my goal now is to have my camera become an extension of my creativity.

  32. Well spoken David. Despite the billions of images taken each yet, I bet the percent of good, artistic images hasn’t increased and has probably decreased over time.

    However, I think it is worth pointing out that good gear is necessary if one wants to enjoy the photographic experience. You need gear that doesn’t get in your way and allows you to have the amount of control that you need for your particular style of photography. That may mean manual focusing lenses or manual shutter/aperture controls or whatever. This was taken for granted in the “old” film days, but many “modern” cameras are a real frustration to use. My wife recently bought a point-n-shoot, only to find out that the only way to easily set the focus and exposure is with a half press of the shutter, both at the same time and difficult to do separately. That’s no fun.

    I have “frozen” my gear acquisitions for 5 years and after 1 year I have no regrets, I wish I had done this sooner. I have a Sony RX1, with a permanently attached 35mm lens, 11″ air book, and at home a Mac Pro computer with Adobe CS6, etc. My only compromise to an otherwise spartan gear bag is a a Sigma DPM2 camera with a fixed 50mm for a backup camera. I’ve also frozen all my software, etc. no agonizing about whether to buy into the Adobe cloud, etc for another 4 years. The dust will have settled by then and it will be obvious what is the best path.

    When out in the street traveling, My RX1 and a couple of filters, etc easily fits in a small shoulder bag under my jacket, or even in a small fanny pack. It is so light and compact and with the shutter noise turned off, quiet! I can get a lot of pictures out in the street on the sly and most of the time no one even knows that I’ve taken a picture.

    When using the same camera for a long period of time, it becomes so familiar that you almost forget it’s there, it’s like it just becomes part of your hand or part of your mind. Having a fixed lens is a really good exercise for your creativity too. No more wasting time and energy about what lens to use, just be creative with what you have. It’s made a big improvement in my photography! Also, just think about how much money you will now have to go to places that you’ve always want to go to instead of handing it over to Nikon or Canon.

  33. Beautiful photo/wallpaper and the last paragraph certainly sums it all up in a nutshell. One of the most interesting articles I have read in a long time and one that perhaps affirms my thinking of buying a second X-Pro 1 just in case the current one runs out of steam in a dozen years or more.

  34. To quote Audrey Sutherland, who in her 80s is known for her solo inflatable kayak trips, “Don’t spend money on gear. Spend it on airplane tickets.”

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    1. Yes. All true. And just as true as when you first wrote that Gear is good. Vision is better.

      I’ve always thought it would be refreshing if a relatively publicly known photographer would write about, work with, and publish photographs from “lesser” equipment than the prototypical D1 X and a bag of L glass.

      That would really pound home the point. And limit the excuses folks like me make about why I don’t have more excellent photographs in my portfolio. It’s really because I don’t do the work, not because I don’t have the gear.


  36. Amen!

    When we spoke in Vancouver I shared with you my experience of financial constraint imposing on me a one camera and one lens limit. This lasted for two years. According to the reviews it was an OK camera and a good lens (GF1 + 20mm).

    The photographs I made, and printed, during that period remain among my most loved. I can still operate that camera without thinking. I had vast amounts of fun. I learned more about light, shadow, and composition than I thought possible.

    Though I have a new camera now, I have a very small selection of lenses. I never think about their limitations. I do think about mine. There are apparently better cameras out there. They are likely more hip. But to play with your words, I prefer my old jeans. I feel good in them.

    1. I was once told by a publicist for a band, that she had yet to be able to get as good of shots with her new much higher quality camera than she was able to get with her old point and shoot. She was disappointed and aggravated beyond words.
      In a moment of insight, I asked her if she was spending more time trying to dial in the camera than looking for “the shot”. her first reaction to that comment was less than favorable. She then came up to me later in the night and said Yes, I think you are right.
      I am not going to claim that it is the hardest shooting to do. Yet under modern stage lighting with computerized “light shows” the colors and intensity of those colors is constantly changing. I find it brutal and extremely challenging. But, that is probably why I am drawn to it

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