10 Upgrades for 2019

In The Craft, The Life Creative, Tutorials &Technique by David45 Comments

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.

For the Love of the Photograph,
David.

PS – If you’d rather get these posts by email, I send them out as The Contact Sheet. Subscribers also get PDF copies of my latest work and a copy of my eBook, 20 Ways To Make Better Photographs. I’d love to save you a trip to the browser every 2 weeks, if that’s helpful to you. You can subscribe here.

Comments

  1. Good read, David. As a former newspaper shooter (albeit just for a decade from 1998 to 2008), I had amassed a fair amount of gear for work. When the newspaper industry floundered and I had to go back to a “real job” to pay the bills, I still kept all that gear and kept doing the shooting I had always done. Then I retired in 2012 and decided to follow in the footsteps of the great Henri Cartier-Bresson with one camera and one lens. I bought a Fuji X100S but felt I needed something with a little reach and also picked up a used Fuji X-E1 with the Fuji 1,4/35mm lens. Long story short, I now have only the X100S along with both the TCL and WCL conversion lenses with an old Yashica Electro35 GS and its adapters in my bag. Every once in while, I looked at images I used to get and long for my old Nikon gear but then I get an image with the Fuji or Yashica that really resonates with me and the G.A.S. desire leaves me. At my age adding gear is not an option. While I once needed a ultrawide lens and a fast 300mm telephoto, I am not shooting for publication anymore.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Aha, I suspected that may be the case.

    I attended (and much enjoyed) a weekend workshop that you did a couple of years ago in Burlington, ON. Hope to be able to do something like it again sometime.

    Thanks for the response and all of the content that you share with us!

  3. Hi Mark – For the last couple years I’ve not advertised at all, and have only done workshops with alumni from previous workshops, preferring to spend some time working with people I’ve already worked with and going deeper with them. I may start opening a few spots up, in which case being on my mailing list or Facebook is probably the best way to hear about them. They fill too quickly to bother with a proper webpage.

  4. Where do you advertise your workshops? I hadn’t seen them posted in a couple of years and didn’t realize that you still offered them.

  5. I agree 100%. We don’t need more gear or newer gear, just need to upgrade ourselves. Taking the time and experiencing a place, looking for something new and truly seeing, is the quest most of us photographers are one.

    I enjoy your posts, books and photographs, keep them coming!

    Cheers,
    Wade

  6. Actually not a comment but a question. I am a stumbling, elderly, wannabe photographer. I read as much of your work as I can. And I love it all. But can you suggest a gentle course, of yours, I could try.
    I do hope I get a response
    Thank you
    K.

  7. Thanks for the ideas, will certainly be taking some of these on board. Your work continues to be utterly fabulous.

  8. Words of wisdom. I was thinking of getting the XT3 and upgrade from my XT1 but will wait longer after reading your advice. I agree, its all about new techniques and improving as photographer rather than the machine.

  9. Thank you for these foundational thoughts and thanks for the way you approach photography overall. From the central message to be more intentional with the camera that I discovered in Vision & Voice through today’s message, you’ve been completely consistent: use the gear as tools to a greater goal, communication. Of a story, a message, a vision, a feeling. Your advice to buy a printer prompts me to write. I believe that the creative process after taking the shot requires us also to face the task of image selection, then development and finally printing. (I would also add experiencing the printed image afterward to complete the creative process). Do you have any advice for what to do with the prints? I sold my printer after it sat idle for a full year as I accumulated images. Not satisfying and decidedly incomplete, but what to do with the prints? Thank you for any advice.

    1. Hi Rick – A couple things come to mind:

      -Put them on your walls and swap them out every couple months or so. I hang some of mine on a wire to make this easier.

      – Donate them to charity auctions for causes you’re passionate about.

      -Put smaller prints (8×10) into portfolio books and create bodies of work that can sit on your coffee table or even given away.

      -Give prints away for birthdays and holidays.

      -Clear the walls once a year and do a gallery exhibit in your home for friends and family – a good excuse to show some work, clean the house, drink some wine.

  10. We met at the Australian AIPP Conference in 2017 (I think) and I showed you the SL on the Leica stand. Glad to see you got the Q, a better fit methinks.

    1. I remember that, Nick. I still lust after the SL, but it’s just not the ideal camera for me. Now, give me a second Q with a 80mm lens on it and I’m yours forever. 🙂

      1. I have the SL, but have moved move towards the CL for my travel work. I don’t think there is another camera on the market which ticks the genuinely small AND high quality box so well. If you don’t have big hands and don’t need video it’s awesome. I think of it as a Q with interchangeable lenses. Put a 35mm Summilux-TL on the CL and you ‘almost’ have a Q with a 50mm lens.

  11. As always you hit the mark, David! It is very rare for someone to suggest inner growth as a path, instead of shopping therapy. As Socrates has said it better, know thyself, and in this case, know where to better thyself, is more important than any lens, or camera body. In my case I have an old Nikon 3100 and a 35 and I try – struggle many times – to reach my vision, but when I do, I am on top of the world! My father used to say that in many occasions tools make the master, but I always believed that, If my vision is clear, then the tools are just a means to an end. Thanks for the inspiration, I follow you since creativelive and have read almost all of your books. Please, follow your path, wherever it may lead you, and please let us join you!! Have a great 2019!!

  12. Thank you for your kind very much. My brain is the best tool! Creativity! Great!

    1. Thank you for your kind very much. My brain is the best tool! Creativity! Great!

  13. I have to agree, it’s the person behind the camera that matters. People need to push themselves in other directions, instead of portraits shoot abstracts, forget landscapes try documentary photography, obsessed with macro then look up and try startrails or capturing the milky way, but then I am one of those people that needs to push themselves and I still need to upgrade my gear, my Sony a350 is getting a bit old now

  14. Hi, David,
    Thanks for these 10 inspirations, eh how much stuff on the fire: I started taking some photos in 2014 then some friends told me you take as many photos as you can but with poor results, then I know Marco Tortato that you know well and he to make it short Marco has installed in me doubts and questions that have made me only the good I started to photograph less and more consciously, the quality of the photos has not improved much but has no importance now when I go out I take a picture or two but I’m proud of it. I read a few more books and I thank Mark and you David for these genuine tips! Ah .. Willy Ronis beautiful I saw his show before Christmas at the Casa dei Tre Oci in Venice! Eh .. one step at a time.
    Thanks
    Riccardo.

  15. I was seduced by your opening lines about the cool gear, even though I knew you going say how it’s not about the gear. Masterful. There is a story about my (one’s) relationship with the gear I use, the rituals I create and use as a framework for engaging my visial/nonverbal mind. It becomes a gateway to seeing, to hunting and to bringing home the captured moments. Thanks for reminding me. Here’s to a great 2019.

  16. I work in a photo lab, and the adage “It’s not the gear” rings so true. Every once in a while, not often granted, someone using a crappy single-use point and shoot camera with a fixed plastic lens takes an image where all the variables line up and the shot is amazing. The one I remember most vividly was a crappy no-name underwater camera being used in Hawaii. On a roll of 24 there were 23 typical tourist shots of nothing, just sea weed, the sea floor and other divers, but there was one shot of a sea turtle! In focus, perfectly composed and perfectly exposed, it was magnificent! I know, from looking at the rest of the roll, and several other rolls that particular customer shot, that the image was a totally serendipitous accident, if it had been me that one shot alone would have made the whole trip worthwhile…

  17. Greetings from Germany! :>

    Wow! Thank you for all these words..
    It seems that you are the first person who sees the things the same way I do.
    When I accidentally came across your book and read the introduction, I thought that could have been me.^^
    But you’ve been able to teach me so much more in this article and strengthen my perspective on things. Thank you so much fort hat!

    I’ll get more involved with your website and work, I’m interested. All the best!

  18. Hi David.
    Oh, wow. This really inspired me and I’d like to do all 10, but will think on just doing one or two.
    I have been taking photos for well on 20 years and only now am I getting to the point of understanding what kind of photographer I really am! I had an aha moment in 2017: https://dibzzen.com/2017/08/12/i-am-a-holistic-photographer/

    And almost all of your upgrades make me think more deeply about the type of photographer I am.

    I love how you said: “Spend the year mastering it and not merely dabbling. We dabble too much.” I agree. We are always caught up by “the next thing” and flit from one thing to another, never really getting good at one thing.

    Thank you!

  19. Excellent post David! I recently had my first child and I have hundreds of pictures of him already but I don’t want them just sitting on my hard drives like the other 30,000. So I think I’ll take your advice and buy a printer and learn to use it this year! Coincidentally I’d still like to hear about that Leica Q 😜.

    Cheers, Adam

  20. This is exactly what I needed to see today. Thank you.
    .
    .
    .
    (Though I DID need to upgrade my old kit 70-300mm lens for soccer to the 70-200mm f2.8. I hoped to put it off until later in the year, but the 70-300 started producing Lensbaby-like images. Went with a used first edition of the 70-200 and look forward to using the heck out of it for all kinds of photos!)

  21. Thanks again for your advice, David! It always helps me when I’m in the rut or when I think I should upgrade my X-T1. So, for 2019, I decided to upgrade my bw skills with Silver Efex and to compose a lot more carefully my IG series. Also I completely, shifted my IG account. At least 70% of the people I follow now
    are light-years ahead of my photographic journey, they thrill me and give me inspiration what is possible with my current camera. So much to learn and so much fun. Thanks again that you showed me this way.
    Cheers from Gimmeldingen in the Palatinate, Michael

  22. All great upgrades. I have a sidenote semi-related rabbit hole story to go down.

    I was recently at a design conference and asked a cartoon comic artist how a page that starts blank, ends up to be a full-color story. I knew the basics steps of sketches, inking, coloring, and lettering stages but I don’t know how it all comes together in layers. Is it a pencil? Is it Wacom? Is it all digital now? How are stages handed off to different people?

    The response was that the gear and process do not matter. This person addressed the audience stating each person will find their own way and all you need is creativity and good storytelling. I quietly absorbed that response but with zero experience or understanding of comic book creation, this was a BS reply. Or perhaps discourteous or dismissive. I almost felt offended to be told the pencil I have is good enough. (and that a working studio would accept that)

    I changed that day. He was right. The gear – like the camera – does not grant you a better vision. But asking about gear was the way to be curious. A way to initiate conversation. A way to ask about possibilities when I don’t know the right questions. I can now appreciate the “you must have a nice camera” comment from non-photographers better. Of the 5 panelists, not one was willing to answer the question beyond it doesn’t matter. If this was about photography, I probably would have nodded and agreed. Instead, I left that day no smarter and fairly annoyed.

    1. Author

      I totally agree. It’s one of the hardest aspects of teaching – knowing who is at what level and being able to answer according to their need not merely according to our latest pet-peeve. Of course the gear matters, and there is a place for those conversations – though even those I think are more helpful when we talk about them in terms of “here’s what I do what i do / how I do it, and here is why I make the choices I make about those things” rather than being dismissive and forgetting that we ourselves had a journey to get where we did and it most certainly involved gear and considerations of craft. Well said, Stephen.

  23. Love your words of your wisdom — ALWAYS. I still want THAT Q 🙂 Cheers David. Hope 2019 is rocking and rolling and the new workspace is providing the inspiration for whatever’s next in your story…

    1. Author

      Thanks, John!Happy New Year to you as well. Right now the new workspace is my only sanctuary and I’m reveling in it. Painters and flooring guys are dominating the rest of the home right now. Totally chaos.

  24. Dear David,

    thanks a lot for the ongoing source of thoughts and inspiration! For many years already it has meant a lot to me 🙂
    Talking about mentors and your recent trip to Venice, do you know Elio Ciol? I went to an exhibition in Casarsa della Delizia,
    Friuli in 2017 and his works have grabbed my imagination since then. Very often B/W, silver gelatine prints… Wow!
    Cheers, René

    1. Author

      Hi Rene – I don’t know Elio Ciol but the moment I hit SUBMIT on this comment I’m going to look him up – thank you for the recommendation!

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