New Thinking > New Gear

In Creativity and Inspiration, GEAR, Pep Talks, The Craft, The Life Creative by David21 Comments


In the eternal quest for better photographs (and you can define that however you’d like), we all tend to spend a great deal of money. You probably already know how I feel about this. When I look back at the money I spent on gear that made promises that were never kept (and yes, I know, I heard what I wanted to hear), I’d sure like a chance to get some of that cash back. I kept thinking if I wanted different photographs, I needed different (read: better) gear. 

I knew that wasn’t all there was to it. But it seemed like the easiest step to take. I was pretty sure the other pieces would fall into place after that—and you know how that went. 

If you want more creative photographs, you need to learn to think more creatively: not different gear, but different thoughts. Here are three ideas for how you might do that. 

First, you’ve got to learn your craft and know your gear. Didn’t expect that one from me, did you? I’m not saying become a gear nerd. But I am saying this: in whatever way makes sense for you, the more you understand how your gear works—and the more comfortable you become with it—the more creative possibilities will present themselves as you photograph. After all, you can’t pre-visualize something you don’t know is possible. But if you know how to use a flash in combination with rear-curtain sync and a slow shutter speed, you’ll have more possibilities to consider than if you don’t. 

Whoa! Slow down, duChemin! Strobes? Curtains? Rear what?

Ok, it doesn’t have to be that, though it sounds harder than it is. Have you mastered the use of slower shutter speeds? Multiple exposures? Are you no longer afraid of that 24mm lens? Are you comfortable with different aperture and depth of field? Are you good with exposing for highlights and letting your shadows go dark? These are all techniques you’ll only be able to think about employing, especially in combination with others, if you learn them first. Don’t mistake mastery of craft for snobbery or elitism; the more you know your gear, the more creatively you’ll be able to think about what that gear can do. 

Was that last paragraph overwhelming? Don’t let it be. Pick one thing. Learn it well. Then pick another. One at a time. This is not a sprint to the finish, my friend. 

Second, it’ll help if you think in combinations; rarely does one technique or element make or break a photograph. Think in terms of layers of impact. Sure, you’ve got a great subject, but can you add to that with powerful composition, and on top of that, show me some motion, tell me a story, and give me depth and an intentionally-chosen colour palette?

Back off, duChemin; I’m still working on the exposure triangle!

I know. And this stuff takes time, but even there, I’d encourage you to think not only about getting your settings correct but making them creative. Forget about “getting the right exposure” and think about how you get there. Can you combine a slower shutter speed to gain some feeling of motion with a wider aperture to isolate the foreground and then let the ISO go wherever it has to? That’d be more creative than just jamming it on Program mode, wouldn’t it? But if that’s all you can manage, then rock that Program mode and think more creatively about other things, like the use of different focal lengths combined with different points of view. You’re good at using that longer lens from far away; could you play with a wider lens much closer to your subject? Or experiment with adding new compositional elements? 

However it makes sense to you to apply this, try thinking in layers. Once you’ve got the basics down and you’ve “got the shot,” could you try adding one more thing? Maybe backlight instead? A different point of view? Keep adding layers. 

Third, consider identifying your rut. I know, it was a groove once, but if you’ve been shooting front-lit subjects using your 70-200mm lens and it would never occur to you to find a different perspective, then you might be in a rut. I was in an 85mm f/1.2 rut once that lasted for a couple of years. My pictures didn’t have a chance to look different than the photographs of others. Hell, they didn’t even look different from my own photographs. 

Take some time to look at your work and don’t think in terms of good or bad, but look at the commonalities. Do you favour one particular lens? Is a faster shutter safer for you? Do you camp out at wider apertures because it’s easier to control the composition when most of the frame is just pretty bokeh? Do you only have pictures of smiling people because you’re not comfortable with other emotions? Only you know the answers to these and many more possible questions. I just encourage you to stretch, to move beyond what’s comfortable. You’ve learned those skills and you’re good with those particular tools—great! Now learn others. Then add layers. And when those become comfortable, add more. Lean into what’s missing. If you need to learn to tell stronger stories, learn that. If it’s some element of darkroom work, like dodging and burning, learn that. Keep going, follow that curiosity. Keep asking, “what if?”

Creative thinking isn’t commonly taught. Even when I talk about creativity with photographers, I see the fear in their eyes, so worried I might ask them to spin their camera in the air or go all-in on intentional camera movement and multiple exposures. I just mean learn to think from other angles, beyond the blind spots we all have. You don’t think creatively because you’re a born artist or “a creative”; you become an artist or creative person by thinking creatively, and that’s something you can learn and hone. 

Forget the new or different gear—I’ll take different ways of thinking any day. 

Got a question? Something to add? I’d love to hear from you. I’ll do my best to reply.

For the Love of the Photograph,
David

Comments

  1. Hello Mr. duChemin,
    I am new here and I am glad I’ve found your site and this article. I was in the verge of selling all my gear (camera plus 4 lenses) just to buy another camera with a fixed lens because I thought it was going to change my results and the way I shoot. After reading your article I have decided I just need to change my perspective and look at thing at a different angle. If that doesn’t work then maybe I will sell my gear :P.
    Thank you for the article, really well said!

  2. Another excellent article. Thanks, David.

    I particularly like the idea of “layering” techniques, will give it a go.

  3. Our 14-year-old is an aspiring amateur photographer, and he’s obsessed with the idea of new gear. He seems to think that not having expensive equipment is somehow holding him back. Of course, he’s a product of the Apple generation in which people wait in lines to get the newest tech, so I guess that’s part of the issue. He has a 2-year old iPhone, tripod, and some lenses. – We tell him that’s more tech than any photographer had in the first century+ of photography! (And more computing power than NASA had until the 90’s!) So, we are going to let him try our old Polaroid, just as an exercise in creativity.

    1. You’re spot on. I was a gear-freak when I was 14, too. Spent more time cleaning my lenses than using them. It’ll pass. It only took me about 20 years. LOL. The Polaroid is a great exercise. Tell him to take drawing lessons. That’ll help him more than any of the new and constantly changing tech. He’s lucky to have you so invested in his creativity.

  4. Sorry but this time it’s different. The Canon EOS R5 really will revolutionise my photography and serve as a continual inspiration dispenser. Watch out world, here we come! 🤣

    1. Author

      😂 “Watch our world, here we come”?? I don’t think so. Not these days. But enjoy the new camera. I got a deal on new Fuji XT3 bodies in February to replace my again XT2s. So far not a single frame on either of them. Fantastic paperweights though. 😂

      1. Haha, totally tongue in cheek there! I didn’t actually buy anything but I do like the idea of an inspiration dispenser!! As much as a new toy would be fun, if a 2 year old 5D Mk4 isn’t cutting it then the problem would be me.

        When some new gear is launched that everyone is raving about, I find it useful to imagine a time, in the not very distant future, when I’ll be scheming how to get rid of it, in order to fund the Mk2 version.

        I’ve not had to rely on camera gear for income, but in the past I have been guilty of pushing I.T. gear for too long, only to have it fail at the least convenient moment.

  5. “I’m in a groove now or is it a rut? I’m on a roll now or is it a slide?” (h/t to Neil Peart)

    A very timely question. I’ve been seduced by deep shadows, blue skies and some rim light for about a year now. I love it but I think I’m making the same photo again and again. Time to move on, I guess, but that will be difficult as I do love this photograph I keep making.

    Still thinking of Venice. Glad I brought my hip waders.

    1. Referencing Neil Peart on this blog earns you extra points. 🙂

      Hope you’re doing well, Scott. That Venice trip was epic for so many reasons.

  6. Thank you for another thought-provoking missive. I was reminded of the aphorism “when all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” I appreciate your encouragement to build a better equipped mental toolbox. I know that I am all too prone to approaching a subject in the comfortable way of my habits. If I take your advice and remember to ask myself “what if,” then a door opens into a room of possibilities. I just have to be willing to slow down enough to consider the alternatives and be aware of the tools at my disposal.

    1. You nailed it on the head, Bob. If we all just slowed down and asked “what if?” a little more, I think we’d see so many more possibilities.

  7. Thanks David, I came here through the 5Day deal four years ago. There were only two “products” in the deal that held any value for me. I am an Open Source advocate, so anything Adobe is of no value to me, most of my post production is in Darktable, an amazing RAW processor. The two products were your philosophical blog, and Lindsay Adler’s material on Posing Pitfalls. Your contribution helped me with the why, and Lindsay with a how.

    So back to your post. There is always room to run with the “happy accident” a three light setup where one strobe doesn’t fire. I get maybe one misfire per shoot, and I look at it and say, damn that’s good. Serendipity is good for the soul. It is like God saying, ” why not this?”

    1. Thanks for that, Andrew. I’m a big fan of happy accidents. We like to be in such control that often we miss the unexpectedly interesting results of a “mistake” because it’s not what we were looking for. Pays to keep an open mind as well as open eyes. 🙂

  8. Thank you David, this is a beautiful way to start my cold Monday here in Australia. I scan my emails and see yours there and all else is put on hold while I read through it. You inspire me and while I am heading towards the higher numbers of the year’s scale, it hasn’t stopped me from wanting to learn more and to try to become more creative. Photography is a complete joy to me and I see beauty and wonder as well as the old and worn everywhere I go. I am thankful too that having the best gear isn’t the be-all and end-all as we who are past our working days need to sue what we have and not chase every new form that presents itself on the market place. Blessing and joy along life’s way.

    1. Thank you for that, Beverley. I think continued learning is part of what brings us joy. May you learn much and learn long! 😉

  9. Thank you David ….. I love your posts and this one really resonated with me. I think I’ve been stuck in a beginner- quasi intermediate photographer mode for years. My husband gave me a Canon 40 D when they were brand new. I followed up with lessons at Langara and learned so much. And then….. I just stopped. Work got in the way and now my camera is dusty and I’ve lost (misplaced ) the knowledge I had.
    Your words reminded me of the steps to take … you’ve made it sound possible and do-able. Thank you so much!
    Stay safe and healthy.
    Sue McCalla

    1. Fantastic, Sue. Keep at it! It is very possible! Just go play, the rest will follow and you’ll find that knowledge again. 🙂

  10. Excellent article on creativity, David. I am reading it right now during a pause in a hike where I am shooting ONLY my LensBaby Trio 28 using “between” settings to get all kinds of double exposure abstractions. This is hideous good fun, but I really responded to your double abjuration to visually create and add in layers. I have a couple more miles to think about adding layers—
    Thanks—I love it!

    1. You might be the first person who has ever read one of my letters half-way into a hike and responding before continuing on, Sandy! 🙂 I hope you have a wonderful hike!

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