Happy New Year!
I spent last month photographing Venice, then London briefly, with the Leica Q—a beautiful full-frame mirrorless camera with a fixed 28mm lens. It’s brilliant; one of my favourite cameras, ever. The sharpness of the lens is astonishing, as are the tonal qualities, the contrast, and the speed of focus. It’s gorgeous. The photographs it makes are amazing, too. And if you’re asking me if you should upgrade in 2019, the answer is yes! Absolutely! But it’s not what you think. Keep reading.
For years I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that it’s not about the gear. And for years some of you have nodded knowingly, while others have pushed back telling me it was easy for me to say; after all, I already had a bag full of gear. But isn’t it exactly the guy with the bag full of gear that you should trust when he tells you it’s really not the gear that matters? The one who says, yes, the gear has its place, but it’s not the thing that will stand between you and the photographs, and I should know because I’ve tried it all?
Isn’t it that guy who has no stake in flogging gear or shilling for one brand or another that you can trust when he tells you for your sake alone, and the sake of your craft, that the gear you already have is enough? That you are enough?
One of my students had last minute doubts as he packed for this year’s MentorSeries workshop in Venice. He wanted to bring it all: two cameras, four lenses, his fancy new tripod. “Leave it at home,” I said. “Go light.” So he brought it all. Of course he did. And at the end of the week I asked him if he’d used anything more than one camera and one lens. He didn’t. Sure, he could have. And certainly—had he left it all at home—there might have been times when the scene just begged him for a different lens: the one sitting at home. But isn’t that always the case? Of course it is. But when that other lens is at home, you stoically accept what you can’t change and get on with solving the problem and making the photographs that are possible right then with the gear at hand. It’s you that makes it happen. Your creativity. Your brain. You can make great photographs with what you have.
I shot my entire time in Venice with one camera and one lens. And not one of those lenses that covers every possible focal length from 18 to 300, either. That’s not what I call a constraint, though there’s nothing wrong with a lens like that. But it wouldn’t have proved my point; I still created work I love. That’s my point (I know, I know, it’s always my point). It matters not a lick that the camera I had was a Leica. It matters that we accept that creativity works within the constraints we give it, so long as we work it. Use a Fuji X100, or a Nikon D5 with a 50mm, or your Canon Rebel with the kit lens that you can’t afford to upgrade. Don’t like the high-ISO noise? Make a photograph that’s so good, so captivating, that no one notices it! If noise is what people notice, noise is not your biggest problem.
Want better photographs? Of course you do. We all do. But it’s probably not our gear, or lack of it, or how old it is, that’s standing in the way: it’s our excuses and lack of creativity. How do I know? Because we have the most advanced cameras ever (even that ancient Canon Digital Rebel the people in your camera club look down their noses at) and we’re still not making photographs that are stronger than those made by photographers from 20, 30, or 100 years ago. It’s not the gear.
Make this the year you never once blame the camera.
Make it the year you embrace whatever constraints the gear (or life) presents you with, and then get to work. Work around it or work with it. But work.
If you want to upgrade, do it. You probably need to. We all do. But don’t upgrade your camera.
And if you do upgrade your gear, you should probably still keep reading, because your better camera will still not make better pictures. That’s still your job.
Here are 10 upgrades that’ll take you so much further in 2019 than upgrading your gear:
Upgrade your skills. Learn a new aspect of the craft. Not seven of them: one. Learn to work with motion or learn to light a portrait. Learn to use the exposure triangle like a freaking ninja. Take a workshop that will challenge you. But really learn it. Go deep with it. Spend the year mastering it and not merely dabbling. We dabble too much.
Upgrade your understanding of composition and visual language. Don’t look at 1,000 images a day on Instagram. Look at one or two and figure out why they work and how you can replicate that effect or feeling. Don’t end 2019 without understanding how to give your images greater depth, energy, balance, or story. I’ll be offering my course, The Compelling Frame, once more in September; that might be a great place to begin your study of visual language.
Upgrade your creative process. The photographer’s brain is her best and strongest tool. Learn to think creatively, not merely technically. Want a great place to begin that study? Consider reading my book about creativity, A Beautiful Anarchy. However you do it, learn what it means to be creative and how to upgrade that process for yourself.
Upgrade your willingness to make more focused work, to go deeper, to shoot a personal project that you push through even when it gets hard or on which you plateau during the boring bits that every creative project has once the initial spark fades and you’re left alone, without the muse, to make the magic yourself.
Upgrade your ability to sit in one place and really see that place. Learn to quiet the voice that tells you you’re missing something by not being somewhere else. Be present. Be receptive. There are a lot of things the camera can’t do, things that are our job alone (ahem, I wrote a book about this, too), and this is one of them.
Upgrade your ability and willingness to make more sketch images—more failures and what-ifs—and less worrying about what others think. Make way more photographs and see where they lead you.
Upgrade the gamut of your craft. Photography is so much more than a digital capture and some tweaks in Adobe Lightroom. Save the money on the lens or camera you were going to buy and get a printer. Learn to print.
Upgrade your output. I don’t mean more posts on Instagram. Do fewer of those and slow down instead: apply your creativity to longer, deeper edits. Make a book. Print a monograph. Get your photographs off your hard drives and into the world of the haptic and the tangible.
Upgrade your mentors. There is a world of astonishing photographers out there and they need not be alive to learn from them. Stop taking advice from that guy who bought a camera two years ago and now leads workshops and cranks out Lightroom presets. And don’t only listen to me, either. Study the masters. Buy a new book of photographs every month or so and really study them. Get books by photographers you’ve never heard of. Ask others what they recommend. Make the Magnum website a place to discover new names, both present and past. My latest discovery is Willy Ronis, and Willy Ronis by Willy Ronis is a fantastic book. Of course, you could also pick up a copy of one of my own books, SEVEN, or Pilgrims & Nomads.
Upgrade your experiences. Forget that new camera: save the money and go to Venice. Or take a week off and make portraits, or go to the coast or the next town over, or go see your kids or your aging father. Do things that matter to you, that stir the wonder in you, that challenge you. Do it at home, or travel, it doesn’t matter—but do it. And then photograph those things. Don’t be seduced by the idea that the better camera will make better photographs; they’ll just be sharper images of the same old stuff. Spend the money on living the experiences your creative soul longs for and explore those experiences with the camera you know.
The gear you have is enough and probably will be for quite some time. Upgrade the photographer instead. It’ll be cheaper, less frustrating, and here’s what matters: it’ll be the one upgrade that changes both your experience of photographing and the photographs themselves. I hope you’ll give me a chance to be part of that in 2019, but whether or not you take one of my courses, read one of my books, I wish you a deeper, more creative, and more rewarding 2019.
This is a long list. Don’t try to do it all at once. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Just pick one thing for now, and enjoy the freedom of doing that instead of freaking out about whether you should get that new 35/1.7 because it’s faster than your 35/1.8. What you have will get the job done if you will. But getting overwhelmed is a great way to get stuck. Give yourself the freedom to do one or two things and do them well, not all ten. 365 days is a long time. Pace yourself.