Some Thoughts About Equipment

Okay, two posts in a row about gear that either didn’t work or was just plain missing. It’s time for the brighter side of photo equipment. Several of the next few posts will feature equipment I’ve used for a long time, and have come to rely on in the field.

Before getting to any specific piece of kit (as my British friends say), it’s worth repeating something my friend and early mentor Bruce Dale (of National Geographic fame) said to me during the first workshop I took from him back in 2002. As I was about to photograph at the Pecos National Monument in New Mexico, he came over and looked in my overstuffed Lowepro Photo Trekker. In essence, he said, “What in the world are you going to shoot with all that stuff? You have way too much gear to ever do much serious photography.”

I must confess the wisdom of those comments didn’t sink in for longer than I’d like to admit. But he was right. Reading tons of photography magazines (remember them?) convinced me I needed every gadget that came along. There might have been a few extraneous lenses in there, too.

Of course, I hadn’t practiced with any of them before carrying them in the field, so I didn’t know if they would really be useful, much less even work. Heck, at that time, I hadn’t even mastered all the basics of digital photography, yet had brought specialized accessories and lenses that I certainly couldn’t have used to their potential, if at all.

As I’ve gotten older and wiser (the latter is up for debate; the former, not so much), I find I bring much less gear in the field than I used to. But every bit I now bring has been well-used and is well-understood, and will allow me to capture what I expect to find.

The highest level you can reach with your equipment is to be able to know it all so well you don’t have to think about it. You can’t reach this level if you are continually experimenting with new gear or accessories.

Of course, I’m not saying you’re stuck with what you have, and you should never get anything new. But I am suggesting you might want to learn your equipment so well it becomes second nature to set it up quickly for any opportunity.

I’m also not saying you should only own what you can easily carry all at once. For instance, I use different camera gear when I’m photographing wrecked cars and accident scenes for work than I do when I’m photographing landscapes. I even use a different camera body, since I need it to do certain things. Also, I never carry a flash with me when I’m out doing landscape or travel photography, but I always use one when shooting wrecked cars. More about these specifics in a future post.

How could you know if a new tripod, head, lens, filter, or even camera body might work better for you if you don’t know all about how your current equipment works? What would you look for in a replacement? Why would that new piece work any better? You may discover that when properly used, what you already own is just what you need.

As a corollary, it’s worth researching anything you want to add to your kit to make sure you get the best one you can afford so you can learn it, use it, yet not outgrow it too soon, if ever. I’ve always been fond of the saying, “Buy the best, and you only cry once”. It’s not just good justification for anything you’re about to buy; there’s really a lot of truth in it.

If you determine you need something new, don’t fall into the trap of buying a certain size, color, or brand just because a photographer whose work you admire uses it. The best of anything is worthless if it’s not something you need for the type of photography you do.

For example, if your favorite subject is birds in flight, the best wide angle lens, geared tripod head, or macro focusing rail will be a waste of money. A landscape photographer doesn’t need the latest tabletop tripod or speedlight softbox, no matter how good they are.

Future posts will not only describe what I use in the field, but why I use it, and, if it’s relevant, why I no longer use other pieces of gear. I hope these discussions will help you appreciate the gear you have, or help you evaluate what might work better for you in the field.

One thought on “Some Thoughts About Equipment

  1. Wes Grimes

    I agree Tom. I once said in a deposition, the BEST camera to use for photos of that crash scene is whatever you have with you and know how to use!!! I’ve played the same game as you sometimes, purchasing a new or unique piece of equipment before I fully understand the problem it is supposed to solve for me. I have found that if I just think it through a little more, I can make a better photograph with whatever I have and fully understand, with better results than something new or untried. Experience and wisdom (experience just because I’m still kicking!! wisdom doubtful sometimes!!!) usually teaches us that it is not the equipment making the image or utilizing creativity. Except my new D800 freaking rocks, that’s the ‘exception’ to the rule!!!! It DOES solve some problems for me though, so I guess it is okay.

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