Best For What?

In GEAR, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, The Craft, Thoughts & Theory by David21 Comments


For years, the article that got the most traffic on this blog was titled “The Best Travel Tripod?” Google sent people there in droves, but most of them didn’t stay long because I stubbornly refused to give an actual answer to that question: what’s the best travel tripod? Instead, I tried to encourage a particular way of thinking for readers to find their own answers to that question. And in looking for that post this morning, I was shocked to find I wrote it in 2008. Where has the time gone?

Since then, photographers around the world have read countless internet and magazine articles promising the scoop on the best camera bags, the best landscape lenses, and the best cameras. They have entered competitions in hopes that their images will be declared the best in some particular category. And they’ve worried over the best software, plug-ins, and techniques.

That I have some thoughts about this should not surprise you.

There is no best camera, only a camera that does a particular thing better than others (for now). There is no best lens, only a lens that does something—or has certain qualities—that are currently better than others. My old Canon 85/1.2 lens was hailed by many as the best portrait lens of its day, but it wasn’t at all, at least not if “best” meant faster focusing than others. Or lighter than others. Or more affordable than others. And not best if I had a certain environmental portrait in mind that might only be made with a 28mm lens.

Best for what? That’s the question we seem to have a tough time asking ourselves. And maybe, more personally, is it best for us?


The reason I couldn’t (and still can’t) say what the best travel tripod is, not only because I don’t believe there really is such a thing, but because by best, one photographer means small and light; another hopes it’s small and light but also needs it to hold 5kg of camera and lens in moving water; still another just wants a smallish tripod that won’t break the bank.

Stepping away from gear for a moment, this is the same reason photographers struggle with editing down to their “best” images after a day of shooting. They haven’t asked “best for what?” before jumping into the edit. Without answering that clarifying question, it’s almost impossible not to default to choosing images that are merely sharp and well-exposed. Asking yourself what you hope for from the photographs you’ve made—what kind of story you hope they will tell, what kind of emotion they will invoke, what kind of ideas they’ll explore, and even how the images will be put out into the world—has to happen before editing, not afterward, and makes the process so much clearer.

Work done in the digital darkroom is no different. What’s the best way to process this image? You tell me. What are you trying to accomplish? Without a sense of that, how can you decide on a specific colour palette or whether using more or less contrast, saturation, or dodging and burning might have the best effect? No one but you can know this. 

At some point, you’re going to have to make a decision—not on what is best, but on what you want.


There is a terrible fear of wandering too far from the herd. Of being the one person who’s not using the gear the pros are using. Or being the one person swimming upstream when everyone else is going with the flow of whatever trends are popular at the moment. We worry whether we’re doing it “right”. We fret over how and what we should be doing. Some of this is a desire for excellence and pushes us forward in our craft. Most of it, I suspect, is simply an unwillingness to own your personal tastes and preferences and let your desires and whims drive your art.

What a tragedy it would be if you spent your photographic life so distracted by the pursuit of what is “best” that you never got around to discovering what is yours.


I don’t like the word best. It invites comparison where comparison doesn’t necessarily belong. It suggests that one thing, one idea, one process, or one kind of photograph can be the ne plus ultra while all others are simply deficient in some way. Asking what is best is a waste of time, and it generates fear: fear of being insufficient, of being different, of missing out.

Asking what is best is—at best—an incomplete question unless it’s followed up with “best for what?”


Is the way I make photographs, edit my images, or process them in Lightroom the best way? For you, probably not. I’m not even sure it’ll be the best way for me a year from now as I evolve and grow. Almost none of us want to accomplish the exact thing as others, or even the same thing we did in the past. If we’re heading to different destinations, it makes no sense to take the same road. At some point, you’re going to have to find your own way, choosing different gear and techniques and ideas for reasons all your own.

This applies to so much in life beyond the camera; so many of us live for years adhering to scripts written by others, afraid to venture beyond the conventional, even when what is conventional is choking the life out of us.


So many people spend their limited time and money and emotional energy on pursuing what is best according to others without ever stopping midstream to ask what they really want for themselves.

A digression: “best for whom?” isn’t a bad question either, particularly when others are making the claims. Have you ever noticed that so much of what gets promoted as the best of anything usually has a link to purchase that same thing? Next time you’re on a website promoting the best landscape lens or camera or bag, look around and count the ads. If we can be kept guessing about what is best—and so long as what is best can be purchased—we can be kept living in hope that we can buy our way to being better photographers.

The biggest changes you will ever experience as a photographer will happen as a movement toward more independent thinking.


This is a movement toward freedom and individuality. It’s a path you carve out for yourself in pursuit of your curiosity and what feels right to you. Yes, you’ll have phases of emulation and imitation—those are necessary to learn your craft and discover what is possible but not what is best. What is best is what is yours, and that is unearthed only as you begin looking for the latter rather than settling for the former.

For the Love of the Photograph,
David

Comments

  1. Olá David, desejo que esteja em Santa Paz.
    Agradeço pelo seu desejo de ajudar-nos e, pelo teor dos seus comentários, que são de valiosa qualidade técnica, e principalmente “Emocional”. Tenha a certeza de que suas opiniões tem me ajudado muito, pois, percebo que estou no caminho correto com meus desejos em relação à Fotografia, ou em ser um “Fotógrafo Independente”. David tenho me identificado muito com seus comentários que recebo por E-mail; fico feliz por seus conhecimentos estarem fazendo diferença em meu aprendizado. É uma pena que as condições atuais não me permita acompanhá-lo ao Kenya juntamente com a Sra. Cynthia e seu grupo de fotógrafos.
    Aceite meus singelos agradecimentos.
    Brigadooooo!

    Milton Silva

  2. I still use cameras from 10 years ago. I don’t upgrade to the latest and greatest because there isn’t a need. I still use editing programs from 10 years ago as well. There is a myth that just because something is new, that it is better. Not when it comes to art, music or photography. People forget sometimes that our gear, are simply tools for creating images.

  3. David,

    Always thoughtful articles, and I enjoy your viewpoint.

    I agree with your assessment. Equipment is overrated. I have to keep reminding myself of that from time to time. As most of us get stuck and think about new ‘stuff’ that will help us be more creative, and essentially create better images. Well, look at some of the world’s greatest artists. Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Maier, Capa, Frank, Arbus… they didn’t have the technology that we have access to today and they all created exceptional work. I think that you have to live with (whatever) camera you have and shoot, and shoot, and shoot, to find yourself. It’s not the camera, it’s you. Just get better.

  4. HI David You hit the ball out of the park on this one. It causes us to think for ourselves and what’s best, whatever that may be. Because of Beyond The Shutter, Image Work and The Traveling Lens, I’m learning how to think and plan better. I’m actually putting together a shot list for my kayak trip north of the Arctic Circle this summer. I have never done that before but I find I keep adding to the list about different ways to photograph and how I want it to look. It sure opens a lot of doors. Thank you for teaching us all this. It is very helpful.

    1. Author

      Thanks for that, Jim. I can’t wait to hear how the Arctic Circle trip goes. Drop me a line when it’s over, I’d love to see what you make!

  5. Thanks for a great article.
    You say that “The biggest changes you will ever experience as a photographer will happen as a movement toward more independent thinking.”
    A few years ago I would have agreed with you but , having just passed my 80th birthday there is an even bigger photographic change/challenge and it is that brought about by age and its physical constraints and having to adapt your photography to cope with it. You can no longer walk where you would like to because of unsteadiness and you cannot physically carry the vast plethora of equipment you used to have.
    So you have to review your photographic aims and intentions and reduce your equipment down to manageable proportions – in my case I now only carry a compact camera with a fixed 24-75 zoom (less than 400 grams weight) and I also carry a monopod, not only to steady the camera because of my shaking hands, but also to double as a support for me when walking over uneven ground. I have had to re-assess my photographic challenges and both pieces of equipment are now the “best” for me.
    I look forward to the remainder of my photographic life, my aims and objectives being to make the best of the equipment I now have and to enjoy them.

    1. Author

      Exactly so, Bill. But I’d argue it’s how you think about those changes. I’m 50 and after an accident in Italy 12 years ago I’ve already started to face these challenges and changes, though perhaps not to the same degree as you. Not everyone will adapt their thinking to new realities like these, but I think we must if we’re to continue to grow and to create as long as we can. Happy belated, birthday, Bill. May you have many more healthy years!

  6. You said it very well David. What is best is best me may not be best for others. And what my infamous human workshop leader has a bias for and says is best, may not be best for me! To each their own!

  7. Very good points and well written. Just one thing to add. Instead of looking for the elusive best we should settle for good enough. If your camera and lens and tripod are good enough, they are, well, good enough and you can stop worrying about them. And instead use them more.

    1. Author

      Well said, Ilkka. Holding out for perfection can often get in the way of just getting on with it. Thanks for chiming in!

  8. I loved this article but then there is rarely one that I don’t find so helpful and thought-provoking. You have a special way of writing that is always worth reading and for me saving in a special file. Thank you, David.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Beverley! Kind of you to take the time to say so. It’s a privilege to write for such great people. 🙂

  9. Hi David,

    This is by far the Best Article you have written in a long time, 😉 (I couldn’t resist the chance at a corny plug!)
    It really got me thinking.
    Keep up the good work.

  10. It begs the question to the lucky lady going to Africa with you…….this will be the BEST trip to Kenya you’ll ever take. Did I miss the point?

  11. I smiled all the way through this blog as you hit the nail on the head, again! It is tempting to be driven by those adverts claiming all manner of wonders for the latest whatever, the best, no, the best of the best. My camera bag holds a Pentax K-5 and K-3 and whatever lenses I fancy for my day out. Some of the lenses date back to 1950s . They certainly wouldn’t qualify as today’s “Best” but they suit me just fine, just as my “best” shots suit me just fine. I won’t be swayed.
    Keep up the great blogs, they always poke and prod the old grey matter.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Ann. It’s been a long time since I shot Pentax, but those that still do are certainly a rare breed of “I’ll use this thing until it falls apart, or until I do!” I love it. Keep at it, Ann!

  12. I really needed to read this today – as much for my life as for my photography. Thank you.

    1. Author

      It’s an honour to write for people like you, Elena. Thank you.

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