Image or Imagery?

In GEAR, Rants and Sermons, The Craft by David26 Comments

Each time I travel I get the same questions about my gear. Here are the answers. But I should warn you, this post quickly turned into a bit of a rant.

What Camera do you use? Right now it’s Fuji mirror-less for the most part. And a couple zoom lenses from 16mm to 90mm. Sometimes longer. But it could as easily be Sony or my old Nikons. Yes, I love my Fuji gear, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. I used to look like a much cooler photographer, but I make better photographs now because I can walk longer and farther and my gear gets in the way less. Find the camera that works for you, then use it.

What Camera Bag do you use? I travel with my gear in a Think Tank Airport Essentials bag. It’s a great airplane bag. When I get where I’m going I pull two bodies and two lenses and put them in one of two lightweight satchels I own. One is simple leather, floppy and boring, with no bells or whistles. The other is canvas and has a couple pockets, and is made by Filson. Neither are camera bags. There’s no padding or dividers. I throw a sweater or rain jacket in, put in one camera, a couple spare batteries, and a memory card wallet, and walk out the door with the other camera slung around me. All the clever camera bags and pockets and stuff just get in the way. What more do we need than a camera, or two, and a lens or two?

What Camera Straps do you use? All my cameras have UpStrap-Pro bandoliers. They’re nylon slings that I wear crosswise and they sit just higher than my hand rests when I’m walking. You could probably make these with a quick trip to REI or MEC or some other hiking or climbing store but has them for $20 or something. I’ve tried a lot of fancy clever straps and none of them work for me like a simple bandolier. And I’ll put the $50 I save toward something that really makes a difference to my photography, like printing my work.

Anything Else? Other than a cool scarf? No. Listen, when we first get into photography – I remember these days well, and I’ve bought more gear than many of you combined – we want to buy every little gadget. We’re under the mistaken impression that any of them really matter. Sure, some do. Most don’t. You know the kind of photography you do, and you’ll know you really need Thing X when you can’t do your work without it, or Thing Y no longer does it for you. The more gimmicks I tried – the fancy camera bags, the $100 straps, the more I felt like a photographer was meant to feel, and the more those damn things just got in my way or encouraged me to carry more crap than I needed and that too got in my way. You know what’ll really make you feel like a photographer? Making better photographs. If you’re already sold on that you can skip to the last paragraph.

I have a feeling that much of the crap sold to photographers doesn’t serve our photography so much as it serves our ego. Not that you need it, but this is my permission to not look like a pro photographer. You don’t need the biggest best glass, unless you really, really need it. I harp on the Canon 85/1.2L a lot, and I’m going to do it again. It’s ludicrously expensive. It’s heavy. It’s very slow. Most people don’t need one, and most people will make better photographs without one. But it looks cool. You will look awesome carrying it. I know I did. But I make better photographs with something lighter and faster. You probably don’t need 4 lenses. or the Pro-sized body and grip. Or the really cool-looking camera bag with 20 pockets and a hidden darkroom. Or whatever else is about to hit the market that screams “photographer!”

Most of us would make better images if we stopped worrying so much about our own image. If you want to impress us, show us your photographs, not your list of L lenses or your weird leather hipster camera straps. And we’d make better photographs if we spent more time pouring over the work of past masters, or painters, or other visual artists, and actually learning our craft, than pouring over the latest catalogue from StuffMart.

The most valuable things you can bring to your photography can never, ever, be bought at the camera store: curiosity, patience, the willingness to put in the time, to fail, to see light and lines and anticipate moments. The ability to tell a story, express an emotion, or tell the hard truth. We’ll make better photographs when we concentrate on that and worry less about the other stuff.

I knew this would turn all ranty and stuff. My comments apply, I think, across genres of photography, but are made specifically in consideration of my travel and street photography contexts. Clearly if you are making wildlife or landscape or wedding photographs, your needs will be different. The point, however, remains. 

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  1. Do you prefer prime or zoom lens or even super zoom lens? What is your style.
    I used to like carry a heavy f2.8 zoom lens. but now I like use a small prime like 50mm f1.8 or 35mm f1.8. and just shooting wide open all the time. and I like it now. lightweight and better image quality.
    What is your style?

  2. I am a little slow on the uptake but I finally found your blog. Going back through some of your past entries, this one resonated with me. As someone who went from a amateur learning the craft to a part-time shooter doing occasional weddings/senior portraits to, finally, a chance to shoot for a little Florida weekly for a decade before recession and retirement hit, I totally agree with you on photographic gear “NEEDS”. From 2003 to 2013, I shot with the same basic camera bodies (Nikon D2H) and the same basic lenses (added a Nikkor 18-200mm DX for travel needs). While I envied other shooters in the area when the D3 hit the streets, I knew it would not improve my images the least little bit. In retirement, I no longer needed the 12-24mm DX lens or the 2,8/300mm and returned to simple lightweight gear and to studying photographers like Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau and the like. I now live in a small town in Georgia and just go about documenting life here to keep busy. Thanks for the inspiration to keep going the way I can.

  3. Pingback: Of Interest for Photography for April 8, 2016

  4. I think I am going to print and frame this:

    > The most valuable things you can bring to your photography can never, ever, be bought at the camera store: curiosity, patience, the willingness to put in the time, to fail, to see light and lines and anticipate moments. The ability to tell a story, express an emotion, or tell the hard truth. We’ll make better photographs when we concentrate on that and worry less about the other stuff.

  5. David,

    I love some of your comments regarding gear. I recently have been conflicted about moving to a mirrorless camera due to weight, convenience and let’s be honest; there is an aspect of retail therapy that appeals. The conflict is that I love my D800. I love the resolution; I love the feel when equipped with a grip as well as the significant investment I’ve made in good quality lenses. But moving to a mirrorless camera to tame my consumer restlessness with the misplaced hope of improving my photography has my inner voice whispering seeds of doubt in my mind. Is reading the latest “Top Photo Expert Dude Field Tests of Mirrorless Cameras” then sprinting out to my camera store or online retailer with my credit card clenched in my hand to buy his top pick the right approach? Should I abdicate my photographic intent to some “expert” on which camera is best for me? No I say. Therefore, my credit card has remained safely in my wallet.

    But recent events have provided me a signpost on my continuing journey. My family has been fortunate to do a reasonable amount of travelling together. However, this past week my daughter (aged 13) and I decided to have a “Daughter & Dad” vacation. My daughter is going through a phase concentrating on sea creatures and particularly whales. I am going through a phase that is concentrating on budget and particularly avoiding the CDN/US dollar exchange rate. We chose to travel to the beautiful city of Vancouver.

    One fun activity we did was a day of whale watching (or more accurately whale searching). When we did discover a couple of beautiful humpback whales my D800 married to my 70-200f/2.8 was in its element. I loved the resolution, flexibility of shutter speed/light, speed of focus, etc. I could quickly anticipate the raising of the fluke and compose several photographs. All was well with the world. The only limiting factor was me and the whale.

    The next day however the penny dropped. My daughter and I decided to walk around Gastown in the historic area of Vancouver. While we strolled around the steam clock and read about old Gassy Jack I was able to attempt some street photography. I wanted to capture some of the history and energy of the place. I wanted to make a few photographs respectively and quietly. However, when I raised my gripped D800 with my 24-70mmf/2.8 or 200mmf/1.8 to my eye the dynamic of my intended photograph would often change. People would be VERY aware of my action and the camera apparatus. While searching for the intimate scenes I was visioning I suddenly felt like I’m was an intruder and disruptor. Whether real or imagined, I felt I was being viewed by some like a Minneapolis dentist chasing Cecil the lion.

    Watching your “Vision is Better” video series really hit home to me on finding a camera the works FOR ME. I have solved my conflict, at least for now. My DSLR works for me in some settings. A smaller mirrorless with a tilt LCD screen that allows me to make pictures less intrusively. I’ll be heading down to my camera store in the near future to actually handle several options; with the Fuji X-T1 as a key candidate.

    Thank you for your contribution to this craft.

  6. David, you have been shooting with the 18-55 kit lens and the 16-55 pro lens. I want to buy into the Fuji system (X-T1) but I’m not quite sure what camera + lens combo to get? Is the 16-55 worth the extra money?

    1. Author

      It’s the full frame equivalent of the 16-35 I want, so if I shoot a full frame Nikon it’s 16-35. On my Fuji it’s the 10-24mm.

  7. Always appreciated, David. I help almost exclusively pre-launch startup photographers, and it is always a shock to them when my gear (Canon 40D, 50/1.8) is so old and simple compared to the gear they’re “sure” they need to upgrade before they call themselves professionals.

    I share your writing often with them, and they are always better for it. Thank you for all you do, and the voice you bring to the industry.

    Do you have a post, book, or video you point early-stage, would-be professional photographers toward so they can get out of the trap of chasing gear and PS actions, and into practicing craft and vision?

    1. Author

      I’d suggest people look at Within The Frame, Photographically Speaking, or Visual Toolbox, all available on Amazon. Thanks, James!

  8. Point taken. 🙂 thanks to reading your blog posts and books I have saved myself from going bankrupt and getting myself thrown out of the house..

  9. Amen! Sometimes I feel pretty wino with my gear but it’s what I feel good using. Everything I use is simple, except my brain, that’s a tangle, and that’s where I see from. I totally just stole your second to the last paragraph so I could quote you on my blog. Love and respect, as always.

  10. Thanks for the great rant David. 🙂 Telling someone they make great photographs due to their equipment is like telling a chef they make great food due their pots and pans. Clearly different levels of gear offer greater capabilities and flexibility but I don’t feel a need to always have the most expensive or latest and greatest camera equipment. I could really impress friends if I owned a $5,000 Kramer custom made chef’s knife but it won’t make be a better cook. Personally, I feel passion and vision allow one to make great photographs regardless of the equipment they are using.

  11. Dear David,

    Question….why do you get so hot under the collar about gear questions? I have been following your website for about two years now and appreciate your images and solid advise, however about every two months I can count on a rant about gear. David, breathe and let it go.

    We are a consumer culture and are conditioned at an early age to shop when we are bored or need a fix. You might understand the final image has little to do with your stuff, and more about how you see and feel life. It’s much easier to cop out and buy the latest gimmick than to sit quietly and develop the ability to really see.

    The gear questions are part of the territory of being out there in the photography world. Buck it up, tolerate the questions and continue to make awe-inspiring images.

    1. Author

      I don’t get bent out of shape about the gear questions as much as you think. What gets me bent out of shape and heading to my not-infrequent rants is the the exact consumer culture you identify. I’m a teacher, Abby. I care about my craft, and I care deeply about my students. So setting aside my contempt for the consumer culture and its effects on the planet, what pains me is when this consumer culture offers up a counterfeit to , as you so beautifully put it, “sit quietly and develop the ability to see.” I love the people that read my books, my blog, etc. I want the best for them. And I get defensive on their behalf when I see them wanting something so badly but taking the shortcuts offered by our culture – especially when those shortcuts push them deeper into debt, and further from the thing they long for – to make photographs that give them a voice.

      Those that appreciate the rants and through them see my heart, will come back once every couple months to see me light myself on fire. Those that don’t have long ago learned just to go visit the gear blogs on the days I get going. But to hold it in would be the opposite of breathing for me. I do tolerate the questions. I welcome them. But I won’t let them go by without being honest about them, because too often I think the “what camera do you use?” is not about gear at all – it’s about something more, and it’s that something more I want to discuss. Even if it only talking to myself in the corner, muttering away like a lunatic. 🙂

  12. But, but I REALLY like my new Everyday Messenger camera bag…. 😀
    I definitely see the draw to a good, undercover messenger bag though. Always loved the look of your Filson.

  13. When you get to a new destination (say first time you have been to a city) and you are about to go out and explore the town, streets, and the people. You don’t know what you may come across and want to shoot. What lens(es) do you take with you?

    1. Author

      It’s a good question, Arash. I rely on the lenses that have always served me well, and are the most used in my bag – if I can only take one lens I’d hedge my bets with a 24-70, if I could take two I’d make sure I have a 16-35mm. And then sometimes I’d take a longer range 24-70 and 70-300, which my Fuji lenses give me without being overly heavy. In the end it’s a bit of a gamble. You get some images with one choice that you can’t get with the other and vice versa. I never worry about the ones I miss, but about the ones that are possible.

  14. Preach it! I recently reduced my camera kit down to two lenses, two batteries, an ND filter, the camera body and two memory cards, and tripod. The rest of the stuff is sitting on the floor of the basement. I will soon get around to listing it on eBay.

    Great post!

  15. Dear David, it is always a pleasure reading your books and articles. They are a great inspiration for me. Every time i get the feeling my G.A.S. is coming up, i repeat as a mantra “Gear is good but Vission is better”. This reminds me always that i rather should go out shooting instead of spending my time inspecting the technicals of a new camera. Thank you so much for your words and vision!

  16. Agree with all the above. #1, Know your equipment. The less we lug around, the more we can spend time, be comfortable and enjoy what we love to do which is chase the light. That joy usually translates into better results.
    OH yes,,, I’ve had my love affair with ridiculously expensive camera bags which are gathering dust in a closet. I pad the sides with foam art board bought very cheaply at dollar stores. I now use old shoulder bags I get from the salvation army and use plastic grocery bags filled with more plastic bags for padding and/or old hand towels or inexpensive microfiber towels. Old beat up shoulder bags don’t draw as much attention from would be thieves. The plastic bags also come in handy for a quick raincoat for the cam/lens. About the only thing I don’t skimp on these days is a good sturdy and comfortable cam strap… or good quality lens filters. Learned my lessons there.

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