Thoughts on photographic gear

Yes, I have still been shooting. Yes, I have a big backlog of stuff I need to process and upload, and yes, they’re coming soon. With all that done, let me address a topic which is the favourite for many photographers: stuff. Or as they like to call it, “gear”.

On the spectrum which ranges from “gear-obsessed” to “gear doesn’t matter”, I am definitely closer to the former. I do browse and buy photography-related stuff on a fairly regular basis, and it represents a big chunk of my expenditure. I’m not going to list here what I use for photography: I think it’s fairly obvious since I’ve talked about it a few times before in the past.

However, my version of being obsessed with gear is a bit different from the common strain found in most photographers: I am less interested in big-expenditure items like lenses and camera bodies, and more interested in lighting equipment. That is not to say the latest generation of DSLRs and fast-primes don’t appeal to me: they do, but I don’t see a driving need to get them just yet, since I have only encountered one or two situations where my current camera and lenses were pushed to their technical and quality limits (the night-time Bridge climb being one that comes to mind).

Not being a gear-Puritan

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that camera bodies and lenses don’t matter. They do, in a big way, and it’s not about having the latest and the greatest. It’s about having the equipment to suit your style (which ideally should be worked out before getting the gear) and your shooting requirements.

You need a responsive body which will do what you want it to without any flakiness. Related to that, you need fairly sharp lenses which will focus reliably. If you like to shoot very wide angles (as I do), you need full-frame to complement your lenses. You need a good sensor to be able to extend your capability to push the files in post without a hell of a lot of noise coming up.  If you want bokeh, then you need fast lenses at the correct focal length for your style. And if you are a commercial photographer who needs bill-board-sized prints, then you need those megapixels and medium-format sensors.

On the accessories and lighting side of things, the relationship between style and available gear is much more direct. You can get a fairly nice light by compromising and intelligently using the surrounding surfaces, and ambient light, but if you are like me and you have specific lighting styles in mind for a shoot, you need the right modifiers to start with. You can DIY your own stuff, of course, but I tend not to because of how fiddly it all is. And having the right little bits and pieces like connection adapters, cables, nuts and bolts, clamps, etc, not only provides added redundancy, but also allows the building of weird combo pieces of equipment that will help you out in a pinch (e.g.: jury-rigging a reflector to a light stand which is already holding a flash by cobbling together clamps, connectors and mini-ballheads).

Minimising technical visibility

At the end of the day, I get good gear (be it camera body, lenses or lighting) in order to minimise the visibility of the equipment during a shoot. If that sounds contrary, bear with me.

By having the right body and lenses, you can shoot with confidence, knowing that your system will pretty much do what you expect it to do (given your own competence, of course). You are not plagued by doubts in the middle of a shoot about whether your pictures are too noisy at ISO 800. You are not having to compromise on shutter speeds (and thus dicing with motion blur) to get a good balance on the light. You are not constantly fiddling with your settings and chimping at your pictures to check focus (because your lens/body has a problem with focusing on the wrong thing 30 percent of the time), and breaking the flow of the shoot. You are not taking the same picture over and over again because you are hoping just one of them will not be blurred.

In terms of lighting equipment, having the right gear and knowing how to use it means shaving minutes off set-up and tear-down time. It means a faster and more fluid shoot where everything and everyone does what is expected, where surprise issues are easily resolved, and where you are not spending half an hour at the beginning of shooting doing trial and error “test shots” and adjustments while the subject waits for you. The reliability and ease of use of the equipment contributes directly to this, which is one of the reasons for my very negative reaction towards light stands which do not tighten properly (for example).

The flow

I have used the words “flow”, “fluid”, etc to describe an ideal shooting situation. I think, as photographers approaching a shoot from the technical and gear side of things, asking questions like “how do I light”, “what is the correct speed and aperture”, we often neglect a very important part of the venture: the emotion, the spontaneity and the flair. For these things, engaging the subject and keeping them in touch with the feel of the shoot is key.

Anyone can achieve “perfect” lighting given enough time to set up and play around with the lights, but it’s important to pre-visualise these things: the lighting style, the modifiers to be used, the position and relative power of the lights, where to position the camera, etc.

(This is part of the reason why I hope to eventually move to a system which allows me to control flash power remotely from my camera position: it’ll really speed up adjustments during setup and on-the-fly.)

In my mind, once the shoot starts, so does a timer. This timer is relative to each shoot, depending on a number of factors. It starts by being a positive timer, with both subject and photographer warming up as we get into the vibrantly creative part of the shoot. But as it counts down, people get tired and bored, and the window for getting a good shot drops off.

By extending the setup and testing time, not only does the photographer risk not reaching the creative apex of a shoot, but the subject is also sitting there getting bored, losing their passion, or getting stiff in a single pose. And the photographer may not realise it themselves, but that setup time also encroaches on their personal creative timer: they become tired and irritable and they won’t be bothered to go the extra mile during composition or instruction to get that shot. The subject picks up on this and it becomes a vicious cycle.

Conclusion

Yes, gear is important. But it’s not important for its own sake. In photography, camera equipment are just tools, means to an end. Knowing and developing a personal style, and capturing the right moment and emotions — these are the important parts for me. All the gear I get must work toward these goals.

Leave a Reply