Can Gear Improve our Photos?

Time to move on to discuss what helps us improve our photography. Your last homework assignment (most of you were bad boys and girls and didn’t complete your homework) was to send me your answer to the following question: I would like for you to think about the top two pieces of equipment (cameras, lenses, tripods) that had the most impact on your photography and send me your top-2 and why they have been important to your improvement. I asked a very similar question to “the dozen” with quite similar answers.

But before I share the answers let me ask a slightly different question that was intended to be the heart of the homework assignment. If I were to promise to pay for any gear that you requested BUT you had to demonstrate to me after a month how it improved your photography, what would you choose to have me buy? AND if you couldn’t prove in one month that the gear I bought you had actually made a difference, you would have to pay me back. I might be dead- wrong but I suspect that you would be careful about how you spent my money – and theoretically your money. It seems to me that improving your photography should be why you buy new gear. Hmmmm …

I have been seriously into photography for about a year. This past year is the first time in many years that I have spent any money on photographic gear. Some of the gear has had a huge impact.   But I must admit I didn’t always think about what the impact would be before I bought the equipment. I suspect some of you didn’t think about the impact either, so let’s look at what “the dozen” said about photographic gear.

Two people said “good glass” is the most important gear to improve their photography. I know both of these photographers and I would definitely put them in the advanced category, a long way from point-and-shoot. They are highly skilled and have been involved in photography for many years. One said, “I would say good glass. I have shot many cameras and they all do well. Having good glass makes all the difference.” If you have owned many digital cameras and lenses and have taken thousands of images, you can probably see the difference. But if you are just starting to make the move from amateur to artist (remember, Emerson said “Every Artist was First an Amateur”) you probably don’t need expensive glass. So what else might help you become more artistic?

A number of people talked about how zoom lenses helped them improve their photographic skills and “eye.” Tom said, “Without a doubt, the ability to change focal lengths has made the biggest difference in transitioning from the hobbyist to the serious hobbyist.” I know Tom well and I think he certainly is moving toward being a real artist and I agree a zoom lens can have a big impact. Why would a zoom lens help improve the photo skills of an amateur more than expensive lenses?

From what I have read about composition, and what I have learned from my own photographic experience, amateur photographers often make the mistake of trying to include everything in their photos. Bryan Peterson is one of my favorite photo author/teachers. He often talks about “filling the frame” (i.e., getting closer to your subject) and removing “crying babies” (i.e., object that are distracting) to improve your composition by making the focus of your photo clear. If you want to improve the focus on your composition, a zoom lens can help you to “see” differently. I have found my zoom lenses to have a dramatic impact on the composition in my photographs.

Swabacher Uncropped (1 of 1)

Swabacher Cropped (1 of 1)

These two photos aren’t great examples of the use of a zoom lens but you’ll get the “picture” (sorry about the pun). A zoom lens helped me get closer to the subject (without getting my feet wet when it was 6 degrees).

A zoom lens also helps me get rid of the “screaming baby” on the right (the trees and brush) that are distracting to the focus on my photograph (the mountains and their reflection.) So what gear is the #1 way to spend you money to improve your photography ?

The photo gear that was listed most often by “the dozen” and those who did their homework was … the tripod. But you might be thinking, why would the tripod be important? Let me share Arnie’s comment because it truly states the true value of the tripod; “A good tripod is absolutely necessary. Not only do they reduce camera shake but more important, it slows down work flow allowing photographers to focus on details of composition.” I promise, I didn’t pay Arnie to say this but I agree 100%. Let me explain why, from my own experience, I believe a good tripod is so important to improving as a photographer.

I hate to admit this but a year ago when I went out on a photo shoot I would just fire away. I had read lots of books and gone on-line to watch many videos. But when I got out in the beauty of the mountains I just started firing away. What was I thinking? The answer is that I wasn’t thinking much at all except to assume (I guess) that the more pictures I took the more likely it was that one of them would be great. Sorry Randy, it doesn’t work that way! To improve your photography you have to think about it at the time you are taking the photographs. After a couple months of listening to great photographers from the Teton Photography Group I recognized that I need to have a good tripod AND I needed to think about what I was doing as I was doing it. I needed to think about exposure and composition and … take … my … time.

I found taking my time is more difficult that I thought it would be. But now I am absolutely addicted to my tripod. In fact, I have already upgraded my tripod to get a sturdier one. And I take my time to think about composition and exposure. I take a shot and then look at the monitor, including the histogram, to think – “Is this the shot I want?” I must admit I have not arrived … not even close. And when I get home after a shoot and look at my computer I realize I need to think more and slow down my workflow even more. I guess sometimes I think it would be nice if this photography art thing was easy … but if it was easy, every photographer would be an artist. Keep on shooting, but take your time and think about what you are doing. A tripod may be a big help.

10 Replies to “Can Gear Improve our Photos?”

  1. Randy, you have probably wondered why I have been so silent. It’s not because of a lack of interest. I have been reading your blog but have been unsuccessful in having my comments posted. Hopefully I’ve found success and this comment will reach you.

    You, my friend, are a natural teacher. You’ve heard me say this before. I am so happy that you have found an outlet to display your prodigious talents. You are modeling what you taught your university students, that one’s happiness and quality of life depends greatly on being a life-long learner. This trait is essential, at least in my view, if we are to enrich the democratic principles we hold so dear in this country.

    Your photos are beautiful! And I can see the progress you are making along the way. I am learning as you learn. I look forward to more posts and comments from others who are sharing this photographic journey with you. I may even have the courage one day to post one of my own photos and learn from your readers’ comments.


  2. Alfred, Thanks so much for your kind words. I am learning a lot almost every day. And Chris says she can see my improvement so I must be getting better. Sharing what I am learning with others makes it a more enjoyable journey so I hope what I am writing helps others learn as well.

  3. Hi Randy,
    I must have missed the last assignment, so I’ll answer that, and follow up the other question. The 2 pieces of equipment that I discovered made a difference in my picture taking, was I was talked into a 50 mm lens. And I bought a small Timbuktu bag that holds 2 other lenses, filters, cable release, fingerless gloves, and extra batteries and chips. Let me explain the last first. I have a couple of different camera bags, and no matter how I arranged my stuff I was digging and wasting time. I found a small messenger bag that keeps everything up right and easily accessible. I don’t have a lot of lenses and excessive amounts of equipment, only one camera body. So why did I need such a complicated camera bag. By getting this simple messenger bag, I didn’t struggle, which helped. The lens was recommended by Aaron. And I put that on, stuck one spare battery and chip in my pocket and went for a drive this fall with a friend. She drove and I photographed. I got some of my best pictures, I think, I have taken since I took this up. No tripod, no zoom lens. Just that fixed lens. It was perfect for grazing wild life, where setting up a tripod would have lost me my shot. Even the sunset pictures were taken hand held. It didn’t last long for the colors to start to fade. So I took my best hand held. I was thrilled with the results. I like my tripod, and when the occasion warrants its use, it is 3rd on my list of most important to me.
    Now, if you had to buy me one thing that would help me improve my photography, it would be in conjunction with my tripod……..a wireless remote shutter release. I have a tendency to keep my hands on the tripod while I try to work the shutter by hand.

    Now about the quality of equipment. You may or may not know, I have2 other hobbies. One is knitting, the other is painting, mostly watercolor, some color pencil and some graphite. Yes, they are for drawing, but in the art world, it is still considered painting. When I first knit, I told my teacher I didn’t want anything expensive, yarn-wise. She pulled out this awful looking thing and said is this what you want your knitting to look like? I said of course not. She said you get what you pay for. I learned an important lesson. You spend all those hours knitting a sweater out of cheap yarn and get 3 or 4 months wear.i still have my first sweater and I knit it back in the mid 1970s. And the same holds true for the lessons I learned when buying paintbrushes and paper. The cheaper, the more struggle. I have aaron to advise me on my choice of lenses, tripod, even down to the program on my computer my pictures are down loaded to. I try not to go over board on my equipment, but at the same time I try to make sure it’s not the bottom of the bargain bin either. I don’t need a $5000 lens. I am not that kind of photographer. I want something workable, and helps give me the shots I want. But I don’t want the equipment to be so expensive I can’t afford to get out and enjoy it because I had to get a second job to pay for it. I feel the equipment I currently have gives me what I want. Aaron loaded me a mid-zoom lens, that I think I will purchase. It gives some good results. I just need to understand when and where to use the equipment I have.
    I am not sure if this what you had in mind. I have a tendency to ramble or get off topic. However, this might give you some insight into me, the very big inner photographer. Thanks, Nancy

  4. I understand. There are lots of gadgets, photography fun-stuff, and other “gear” that makes photography easier. Your messenger bag is a good example of “gear” that can make photography easier (e.g., it is easier to get to your camera when that elk is next to the road). But does it teach you about how to take better photographs? I guess you could say that it does teach you about how important it is to be ready for the shot, especially in wildlife photography.
    The reason I talked about zoom lenses and tripods is that I think both of them teach us to THINK different. The zoom lens teaches us to zoom in and avoid including objects in our photos that distract the viewer from what we want the viewer to focus on in our photo. For me the tripod has made a HUGE difference in my photography; not just because there is less movement and shake when I take the photo. The biggest impact my tripod has made for me is it has taught me to think first and hit the shutter release button second. Although I still don’t think enough and other times I think too much. Oh thinking, I look forward to the day when I do lots of the little stuff automatically and can spend more time thinking about composition or …

    1. I have a really good tripod that Aaron picked out for me to buy. When setting up a scenic shot with time to fiddle, it makes a difference. But I fight with it every time I use it. I don’t think it likes me. It has actually bitten me a couple of times. I am usually too slow and the pictures are gone before I have time to get set up. The fall shoot with my friend MaryAlice would have been a disaster for capturing the wild life. Now the sun set probably would have been ok. But it didn’t last long, so maybe not. Now the bag, on the other hand has taught me how to be better organized, resulting in quicker access to lenses and filters, which in turn lets me make better choices. If I get scattered, then I just want to put it away and sY “I’m done”. Aaron says I need more practice. Working 7 days a week, which includes half days on the weekends doesn’t allow a lot of free time. I’ll just have to retire first. Which might be a long while.

      1. It takes awhile to get used to a new tripod. Sometimes the leg extensions can be tricky and the head of the tripod may have a number of adjustments. But after awhile you will get used to it. Once again, practice time is critical and now that it is winter here in the mountains that practice time can be tough on the hands. Yesterday I did a shoot at Oxbow (more on that later) when the temp was in the low 20’s and the wind was howling. Chilly to say the least, and I was glad that I didn’t have to think about how my tripod worked. It might even be helpful to do some practicing with you tripod inside while you are watching TV 🙂
        Glad to hear that your gear bag is helping you get organized. I have found how important it is to make sure my bag is organized so I know exactly where my gloves etc. are when the cold leaves my hands numb.

  5. Before I begin a would like to mention that I have never responded to a blog post before so hopefully the following is appropriate:
    I am sticking to a sturdy tripod for the most important gear. It certainly is dependent on what kind of photography you do. Shooting in the middle of the day, with ample light will probably get satisfactory results. If it is wildlife in early morning light, or greater depth of field is desired for a landscape sunset with a subject in the foreground, a tripod is a must.
    When I review the images I have taken, I have ended up with better results when a tripod was used.
    The latest gear is always something I look at. I am a firm believer that you can get good images with inexpensive gear. I also believe you can get better images with better gear. I will jump out on a limb and say that very few (if any) photographs displayed at the predominant galleries in Jackson were taken handheld with cheap gear. They were captured by talented photographers with good gear mounted on tripods.

    1. Arnie, thanks for the comment. You have made an important point about a tripod being critical important gear – for certain types of photography. I have found a good tripod to be essential for good landscape photography at sunrise when there is little light. But street photographers typically do not need a tripod. Your comment about gear that is more expensive also makes an important point. Photos that are in galleries in Jackson are very likely to have been shot with expensive glass by talented photographers with solid tripods. Those of us who are First an Amateur are moving in that direction, but the first steps include some great photographs with lenses that are not top-of-the-line. Amateur photographers can improve their skills AND their photographs with less expensive gear and gradually move to better gear if they choose to spend the money. But top-of-the-line equipment is not essential for good photographs.

  6. Regarding the tripod, it seemed impossible because of the subject matter i was shooting, birds and wildlife. But i kept hearing what a difference in makes in sharpness of the photo, so I have forced myself to start using it. First in the backyard and then in the field with landscape. Then in the field with wildlife. i am not sure i see much difference myself at this point. Perhaps the remote shutter release will make a difference. It is in my bag; i will try that next. The head on my tripod is not the best for moving targets. In time i will research that. There are additional tricks and tools for steadiness when shooting that i have been putting into practice more, as it certainly makes sense that any shake will cause blurriness. Unless there is clearly something amiss with equipment, i think it is what is between the photographer’s ears that improves our photos the most. As we learn and improve, we come to understand what gear could advance us?

  7. Ruth, sorry it took so long to respond to your comment but I’m still celebrating the Spartan win over the Buckeyes 🙂 On a more serious note, I understand your comment about a tripod. Since I am not really a wildlife photographer I don’t see the world through the same lens as you do but I can understand how a tripod doesn’t seem as important if you are taking shots of birds and big mammals. But my friend Mike (chipitin72) is big on shooting birds and other wildlife and he thinks a tripod is essential (see his comment in Randy’s Fun with Camera and Friends). He first found a tripod handy when taking sports photographs of his son’s baseball games using a “trigger head” on his tripod. He uses the same trigger head now to take shots of birds and other wildlife.
    As far as the need for a remote shutter release, I used to always use that but recently have adopted a delayed shutter release with a mirror up. That has become a much easier way to decrease vibration in the winter; anything that allows me to put my hands in my pockets on cold morning is welcome. And now I am likely to have shoots in very cold mornings for the next 6 months – it was below zero yesterday morning. Chilly.

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