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.