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One of my first articles here at DPS was entitled 5 Uncomfortable Truths About Photography. I wrote it as a reality check to myself, and for you, the readers of DPS. Our beloved art of photography has a dark side, and it’s important to recognize this. In the couple of years since I penned that piece, a few more negatives about our art have occurred to me, so I figured it was time for Part II.
I’ve recently returned from leading a wilderness trip in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic. My group and I spent 11 days canoeing on a very remote and wild river. For the first three days, the weather absolutely sucked and it was glorious. But then the sun came out and it all went downhill from there.
When it comes to outdoor photography, the bluebird days we hope for as hikers, paddlers, cyclists, and explorers, are not ideal. Bright blue skies do not create drama. They don’t catch the evening light, and they don’t roil and boil in textures of deep blues and grays.
Now a good storm, that’s dramatic!
Our small bush plane slipped in beneath low clouds, barely clearing the pass over the mountains. We landed in a mix of blowing snow, sun patches, and a cold north wind. Photographically speaking it was perfect weather; a constantly shifting drama unfolding across the landscape.
For a few cold and blustery days it was perfect, and my best images of the trip were made during that time. But, on the fourth day, the wind shifted and blew out the clouds and snow, leaving behind a bluebird sky, warm temps, and sunshine. It definitely could have been better for photography.
The moral of the story is that the best weather for being outdoors is often boring when it comes to photography. So be brave, and step outside even when it’s snowing sideways.
A few months ago I made the heart-wrenching decision to sell off my beloved Canon 500mm f4L IS lens. It was a hard decision. That big hunk of glass and metal had been with me a for a few years, traveled around the world with me, and made some of my best images. But, its size, heft, and cumbersome, tripod-requiring handling was getting in the way.
I’ve replaced it with a much smaller Olympus 300mm f4 PRO for the micro 4/3rds system (giving me a 600mm f4 equivalent at a third of the size). And here is the uncomfortable part – the quality of the Olympus lens is equal to that of the Canon and I don’t miss the bigger, more expensive Canon lens at all. Not one little bit.
Except (and to be honest I have a hard time admitting this) when I’m around other photographers. As a bonafide professional shooter, the big lens felt like a badge of honor. It’s a bogus badge for sure because the size of your lens has nothing to do with performance or image quality. Yet I felt like I needed that big glass to be taken seriously as a pro.
The compact mirrorless 4/3rds system does not stand out the way the big gear did, and in groups of photographers, I noticed my gear (and me) being brushed over.
The great irony is that my long lens work has improved dramatically with the purchase of the new gear. Its small size is easy to transport, so it is always with me when it matters. I now walk the dog with a 600mm f4 equivalent for heaven’s sake! It’s there when I need it and the results have been excellent.
Time to put the snobbery aside and let the images speak for themselves.
Yesterday, while wandering around my local farmer’s market, I saw a photographer shooting with the exact same Canon professional level DSLR I owned until a few months ago. My god, it looked huge!
You see, I’ve recently switched from Canon to Lumix (for general shooting and wildlife) and Sony for night work and high-resolution landscape imagery. Both of these two mirrorless systems cast a tiny shadow compared to the hulking DSLRs of my past life.
In this day and age, the difference in quality and performance between a big DSLR and a light and compact mirrorless is precisely zilch. The big camera may make you stand out in a crowd (see #2 above), but it won’t make better images.
Look across the pages of any photo website or magazine and you’ll see gobs of articles and tutorials about camera settings, focus techniques, equipment, exposure, and post-processing. But likely you’ll find very few about the creative process of image making.
I know why. These types of articles are popular because they offer simple, actionable things to learn that can improve your images quickly. Don’t get me wrong, these things are super important to know. But all the settings, equipment, and post-processing tips are merely tools in your toolbox, not the final product.
Eventually, every serious photographer reaches a point where they know all they really need to know about their camera and computer programs, and then what…? They either realize that that photography is more than a technical craft and they begin looking at it from a creative perspective, or they don’t, and they stall out.
Learning the technical details is easy compared to actually finding and composing images in the field. Good photography is not formulaic, and how do you learn something that doesn’t use a formula for success? You work at it, a lot. It’s hard and uncomfortable. That’s how.
Got a few hundred bucks to blow on gear? Don’t. Take that few hundred bucks and take a few days and go somewhere awesome instead. Unless you really need it, your extra money is better spent on going somewhere really cool to make images, and not on cameras, lenses, bags, filters, and flashes.
I can just about promise you that you’ll get more and better images by a few days of travel to photograph wildlife, or landscapes, or the northern lights, or some new city than you will by spending the same amount on a new piece of kit.
A new telephoto lens or camera could cost you thousands of dollars. If you have functional camera gear, and you are looking at something new just because it’s all bright and shiny, take a moment to reconsider. Could those thousands be spent traveling somewhere new and unique? Some place to photograph a landscape or phenomenon you’ve always dreamed of shooting?
We make images by exploring our world. Without that exploration, all the fancy new gear in the world is worthless. Just as importantly, you’ll get the experience and joy of travel, and that is truly priceless.
Look, photography is messy and expensive. I suggest you embrace the mess and reassess the expense. Go outside when the weather sucks and see what you find. Remember that the performance of your gear is what matters not the brand or the size, and know that creativity is hard but it’s the only way to advance your photography. Photography takes work.
Lastly, think about how you spend your money. Old glass and old cameras often work just fine, and are capable of producing excellent images. Maybe you should hold onto that gear for a while longer and spend some of that extra money to go somewhere new. Travel, you’ll find, is an excellent strategy for making great photos.
It’s an uncomfortable photographic world out there. So it’s time to accept it, and go make something beautiful.