Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

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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.

#1 – Bad Weather is Good Weather

cloudy view of mountains from a small plane - Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

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!

rocky outcrop and cloudy sky - Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

Without the moody skies here, the warm tones in the rock would be either absent or much less compelling.

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.

Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography - blustery day

This image and the one below were made 24 hours apart but from very nearly the same location. This brooding, moody, stormy weather is far superior to the more generic, nice-day image below.

brighter day blue sky - Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About 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.

#2 – Lens Snobbery is Real

Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography - bird in a tree singing

A Swainson’s Thrush singing in my yard in Fairbanks, Alaska. This image is one I could never have captured with my old 500mm f/4 simply because I simply would not have been carrying it while walking my dog.

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.

Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography - portrait shot of a raven

I don’t think the bokeh or sharpness of my Olympus 300mm f4 falls short in any way when I compare it to larger, far more expensive lenses like my old 500mm f4.

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.

#3 – Your big DSLR is Unnecessary

Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography - animals running on a ridge

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.

#4 – Creativity is More Important Than You Think

northern lights over a mountain - Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

Part of creativity is knowing when to grab a shot. Rather than pausing when the headlights of a big truck fell across this mountainside, I experimented with an exposure.

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.

sunset over a forest and hills - Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

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.

#5 – Money is Better Spent on Travel than Gear

northern lights over a mountain scene - Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

For much less than the price of a new pro-level camera body, you could go photograph something like this.

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.

sun burst over trees in Africa - Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

A trip to Africa last year re-inspired me in a way a bunch of new gear never could.

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.

Conclusion

night campfire scene - Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

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.

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David Shaw is a professional writer, photographer, and wilderness guide based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. Dave offers multi-day summer and winter photography workshops in Alaska and abroad. He is currently accepting sign ups for an aurora photography workshop taking place 1-5 April 2019 and affordable trips to Africa, South America, and summer in Alaska. Find out more HERE .

  • Great article! These are all 1000% true!

  • So true!

  • David W. Shaw

    Thanks!

  • David W. Shaw

    Thanks! I think so.

  • I agree about spending money on travel. All that hanging around in airports and paying £5 for a beer does indeed pay off. I think it has to do with the “domestic jaded eye” – at home, everything is familiar and sometimes, invisible.

  • David W. Shaw

    Hah! Well travel does have it’s drawbacks, that’s for certain. And I think your “jaded eye” comment is exactly right. I live in ALASKA for god’s sake and sometimes I feel like I need to travel just to break out of my rut.

  • H Shaheen

    Thanks for a very sensible and helpful article. As a hobbyist, I particularly applaud you for calling out the gear and lens snobbery that runs rampant in photography circles. I have recently started printing some of my pics for display in my home and amazed myself at the quality of my 24″x16″ prints obtained with my “unprofessional” APS-C camera. I fully subscribe to the importance of creativity as well as the prioritization of spending money on travel rather than gear. Nicely done!

  • BlackEternity

    Thank you for this article.
    I’m a hobbyist and I own a Alpha A6000 with the 16-50mm and 55-210 kit lens and a 35mm prime lens on top of that.
    I know what my gear can produce and I’m really, REALLY happy with it. A friend of mine and I went to shoot the lunar eclipse here last week and we went to our spot and were surrounded by 20 photographers which were discussing settings and whatnot.
    He was greeted with some warm discussions as he pulled out his Canon DSLR and as I took out my A6000 and mounted it with its puny little 55-210 on my tripod, everybody looked at me like I would smell. No one asked what I own and how I want to take pictures. I was basically dropped like a potato.

    Sad stuff – I know the stock kits are not the greatest but it shows a TON of difference because my friend just owns a Canon DSLR which is huge in comparison to my equipment and not really better in terms of performance (minus the 300mm Tele instead of 200 on mine).
    So yeah – I get that “taken seriously” stuff. I look at other peoples equip and think:
    Damn, I want more tele aswell. But in reality they don’t even have that much more – the lens is just a ton bigger and bulkier because of physical aspects.

  • Paul Lehman

    Great article – appreciate your candid approach. It’s really made me think about my next purchase vs. travel and shedding my DSLR for something more “efficient” for my physically challenging outings and a big camera…but the pull and feel of #2 is real and I can finally admit it to myself – even as a novice hobbyist. Too much truth to it.

  • Vanessa Simonard

    Hi,
    I have an alpha 6000 and there is so much I can do with it!
    I agree that it’s not what you have but more what you do with it that counts.
    However, I disagree with your statement about how moody pictures are better than pictures with clearer skies because those pictures are so “generic”. That’s a self-limiting belief. If I like a picture, I like a picture whether it’s “generic” or not. “Moody” pictures are just as generic. Lots of people are into moodiness these days 🙂
    What’s important is if YOU like it. That said, I love your candidness in this article.

  • brucehughw

    Really good article. Thank you!

  • Mark Weber

    Great article David. As a professional photographer for 37 years now I totally did the same thing and experienced the same feelings as described in #3 in this article. I always want to tell newer a photographer that what they think they need and what they think the image of a pro photographer’s gear should look like are not always what is necessary for price, size and quality reasons. As you mentioned, there’s the confidence level to consider as well. Today’s mirrorless cameras are incredible and I love the size, portability and quality but If the bigger gear gives you the comfort level and confidence to perform and produce better because it’s bigger and heavier? Then that’s the right tool for the right job for you. Happy shooting!

  • Daniel Miller

    Great article and great advice, thank you for writing it!

  • Allen Round

    I sold all my Nikon gear last year and bought an Olympus EM-1 Mark II mirrorless micro 4/3s camera. The image stabilization is great. The Olympus 300mm lens you mentioned is my favorite. I enjoyed your article. You are right on with everything you discussed in the article.

  • I am glad to see some of these topics broached, and I wholeheartedly agree with four of the five point. But please allow me to sum points two and three up differently. Photographers can be mean, self-centered people. A while back I watched three painters get together and share some of their works, and they were each interested in the others’ work, not talking about their own. Get three photographers together and they will all pull out their phones and start yapping about how good or creative they are. And I have acquaintances that cannot chimp alone; they must show you what a great shot they took – every time.

    Now, that one disagreement. I haven’t the time to travel to far away places to shoot, though I would like to someday. That

  • Vans_a_joke

    I applaud you. Seriously. I’ve been in somewhat the same type of position and the “group” shunned me. At first it was a bit a shot after it was pitched as a group that was down to earth, fun, etc. I got over it quickly though and made the most of it and had fun. Not to say that I won over the snobs, but I made it known that they couldn’t ruin my night. An added plus was listening to them argue over the minutia, and eventually pointing out that they spent more time trying to one up each other that they hardly took any pictures. Not only that, but the fact they most were completely miserable by the end of the night strengthened my belief that if it isn’t fun, it isn’t worth doing.

  • Vans_a_joke

    Well said!

  • David W. Shaw

    I’m glad you liked the article. The longer I’ve been a pro, the more disgusted I am by equipment snobs. Photographers universally scoff at the statement “you take great photos so you must have a really good camera!” and yet put a bunch of photographers together and many will look down on those that don’t have a really good camera! It’s almost like we believe it ourselves, no matter what we say.

  • David W. Shaw

    The A6000 is a great little camera! And kit lenses often do just fine. No they aren’t as tack sharp as some high end prime, but they do the trick. And let’s face it, most of us look at our own and others images on laptop and phone screens. At Instagram level resolution and size you could be shooting through a dirty dinner plate and and might not be able to tell!

    Thanks for the comment and great luck in your hunts for images (no matter what gear you use!)

  • David W. Shaw

    It’s a bummer for sure. I tend to get a little disgusted by this kind of behavior. On my workshops, whenever the group starts running down the rabbit hole of minutia or gear, I try to gently steer the conversation back toward composition, creativity, vision, and story-telling. Sometimes the message even gets through!

  • David W. Shaw

    That is a great observation about photographers vs. painters. I’ve noticed something similar. Photographers seem inherently competitive. We compete with our gear, and how we captured a scene. (Can’t say I’ve ever heard painters bragging about the quality of their brushes or palette knives). I think we’d all be a bit better, if we stopped competing with one another and started collaborating and supporting.

    You might be surprised to hear that I agree with your second observation as well. Time is unquestionably a limiter for many photographers, but travel doesn’t have to be half way round the world, it can be to a new city or state, county or even neighborhood, anything to get you away from your daily surroundings. I look at those travels, whether it’s Africa or around the corner as a recharge which allows me to start seeing my local spots in a new way. It works too.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  • David W. Shaw

    Thanks! And yep, the 4/3s is blown off in many circles, but there is no reason for it. (Love that 300!)

  • David W. Shaw

    You are welcome! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • David W. Shaw

    There is nothing inherently wrong with the big gear, but it’s not better! As you note, if that’s what you like, then go for it. I’ll admit it, it was tough to sell off my big DSLRs, I liked the heft of those things, but priorities and technology change. Great images, even world class images are being made with mobile phones. Gear is less and less important.

  • David W. Shaw

    Glad you enjoyed it!

  • David W. Shaw

    Nothing wrong with that camera at all! Great image quality in a very compact and easy to use package. Regarding moody photos… I guess I get a little tired of seeing landscapes under bluebird skies (even places that are rarely bluebird) that’s not to say those kinds of images aren’t important, they are, but I do find them less dramatic, less compelling to look at. Something about the drama of storms, and wind, and snow, and clouds, and fog! Shifting conditions are a playground, and I guess my point is that even on those nasty days, there are amazing images to be made. Thanks for the comment!

  • David W. Shaw

    Thanks for the nice comment Paul! I’m glad the piece made you think. Shiny gear is definitely a siren song that is hard to ignore, we just have to remember that the images we make with that gear is what is important, not the gear itself. And travel is great way to make great images.

  • David Duplessis

    I can’t remember where I first heard this story, but a famous photographer went to a dinner party and the host said the dreaded “Wow, great photos, you must have a great camera!” to which the photographer said, “Wow, great meal, you must have a great stove!”

  • BlackEternity

    Thanks for all the kind words.
    I feel appreciated here – I know many people here (and especially the writers) are in a more professional environment and I think that’s the main reason why I like being here.
    I for myself want to push myself to new limits and that’s what I did with the purchase of the A6000. I came from a Nokia 1020 with it’s massive 42MP Sensor and more of the style “Camera plus Phone” instead of “Phone and camera”. So I loved it and took some amazing pictures with it. My friend said I should buy a DSLR but I didn’t want to shell out the money because my Nokia was fine. Long story short I got an iPhone and the camera wasn’t reaching my expectations and so I bought the Alpha to “have it with me”. And that’s the main reason I stuck with it. And yes – My friend and I compare images that we both take (i.e. lunar eclipse) and talk about what we could make different but NEVER about “Yeah your gear sucks and you need to upgrade”. And this is the main reason I like this platform here. Many informations on what I can do and change and not that “I’m too cheap.”

    Appreciate the community and constructive work that is being done here.

  • JR

    Ha ! Love it! I do this all the time. Luckily in the group I’m in, honestly no one has shunned me because we all post our shots and we respect each other’s RESULTS. But in other scenarios, where I’m in a group that doesn’t know me, I actually enjoy putting on a confident face and “whipping out” my A6000 and elbowing my way in with the big rigs. I’ve honed the skill of looking at someone’s “big rig” out of the side of my eye and ever-so-slightly furrowing my brow….sure, they SEE my camera, but what they DON’T see is the hours I’ve spent learning and making mistakes that have made me a better tog. Best part of course is that I’m developing my technique and eye so that there is NO reason why my shots aren’t on par and in some cases a lot better than what they’re getting. In addition to the 55-210, I use some samyang/rokinon manual lenses, a 30mm Sigma and my pride and joy…a $300 50mm 1.8 Sony…it’s tiny and takes world class portraits (when I’m on my game). I really feel that it is a “truth” that IF you spend time developing skills in composition, lighting and “seeing” the world around you, and if you’ve mastered YOUR camera’s settings and quirks, you will get a success rate on par with any camera out there.

  • David W. Shaw

    I think you’ve got a great kit going there! There is nothing wrong with “entry level” lenses as long as you recognize and compensate for their shortcomings. I’ve had shots published as double-page spreads made with a $300 Rokinon.

    Regarding snobbery: I was once photographing bears at a famous bear viewing area in Alaska, and standing next to a fully kitted out photog with a freaking rolling bag of gear occupying space behind him. He bull-dogged his way to front to set up, ignoring the protests of the tourists around him. When later, I asked him if he’d managed the classic salmon jumping in bear’s mouth shot. He bragged “I’ve got hundred of them!” I muttered, “hundreds of the same shot, over and over again? Congratulations. That’s awesome.” Not sure he caught the sarcasm. Then I wandered off down stream a bit and made one of my best images of two young bears brawling over a fishing spot, and I was the only one there…

  • Ken McDougall

    Insightful, and slightly uncomfortable, which shows how insightful it is! I’ve spent the last few years learning all the craft, and I guess the advantage of that is I can set up quick and I don’t tend to miss a good shot because of stupid technical mistakes. But I was in a bit of a doldrums about why I was doing it, and your point about creativity has given me a lot to think about. Thank you.

  • David W. Shaw

    Howdy Ken! I’m all about uncomfortable. When we get too comfortable in our art, it gets boring. Damn quick. How to be creative is really difficult question. I read a lot, and not just about photography. I try to understand the creative process, and above all think about some wild and crazy awesome images that I’d like to make, but seem impossible, and then try to think about how I might go about it. Even if I never do, it’s a really helpful exercise.

  • Jay Farrell

    I like what you said regarding mirrorless, I went Fuji 4 plus years ago too…SLR’s look like tanks now haha. I’m also sick of gear snobbery. Use a tool that works, do something impressive.

  • David W. Shaw

    Amen brother!

  • gary haas

    The right tool for the job. I have a Sony DSC-HX400V which I use when I need a quiet camera or a crazy 2400 mm zoom. I have a Nikon D5600 with several lenses that I need for special projects and my Gigapan device. Battery life and movies are better with my Nikon D5600.

  • David W. Shaw

    I like some variety in my gear as well, but in general I go back to the same cameras over and over. I like what I like, I guess.

  • Pinchy

    You might want to spend some time in the lower peninsula of Michigan or central Indiana, you’ll appreciate your “rut” of expansive mountain vistas and valleys . . . . and quick. This is not to say there we don’t have an abundance of nature and wildlife. Its just that we are severely “elevation challenged” and a distant horizon is but dream we have now and then.

    Great article. I have loved my 4/3 format for the last decade. The 2x multiplier is a wonderful thing when shooting birds.

  • David W. Shaw

    Hah! but you know, from a traveling perspective, photographing in the midwest, or really anywhere I haven’t photographed before sounds great! But I get you, it’s the old familiarity breeds contempt and I am extremely fortunate to live within a couple of hours drive of some of the greatest landscapes and locations in North America.

  • Evan Hunt

    Thank you for this thought provoking article! I agree – very sensible and a helpful reminder. Thank you for challenging the attitudes out there that undermine creativity, collaboration, and a healthy sense of vulnerability. I am an engineer, and so it is difficult, at times, for me to dedicate time looking past the amazing progression of technology in the imaging industry (I also work with industrial vision systems) and having fancy nice toys. This reminds me to just get out and shoot/challenge myself artistically/creatively instead of getting antsy over that piece of kit I’m still waiting to get and thinking that I need. I shoot micro four thirds, because I figured I could make fairly large prints for loved ones/myself while having a very lightweight and compact system that wouldn’t deter me from taking it places. I’m happy with my decision and my purpose. I am also a musician, and there is a very similar culture. I struggle with the same thing, and I think that learning to look past the facade that many people hide behind, and challenging myself to be open as well, is a healthy practice. I try to respect everybody, with their own purpose, style, abilities, and format. In the end, if you are having fun, than I think you are accomplishing a big goal, at least on a human level.

  • Michael Clark

    Doesn’t gear snobbery go both ways?

    There are a lot of mirrorless snobs out there who think no one who uses a DSLR can possibly have a clue.

  • Jay Farrell

    Yes, it sure can! I just know the tool I like to use….if someone produces great work with a first generation Canon Rebel, just as well. I don’t care what anyone uses, just produce.

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