Equipment: I gotta have that!

Shot with 8x10 camera

Shot with 8×10 view camera

This particular post has actually been the most difficult one I have ever attempted. The problem is that the issue is really very complex and we all make decisions about our equipment purchases for different reasons.

Some of our reasons are very real, objective reasons while many times these might be perceived or manufactured needs and then, of course, there are the psychological factors which are probably present to some degree in all decisions. My feeling about this is that these psychological factors are probably just as important–if not more– when it comes to buying equipment. They are most likely the factor that finally seals our decision to buy. We just get to a point where we can’t tolerate not getting that new equipment anymore.

Shot with Rebel XT

Shot with Rebel XT

The issue is that if we don’t feel good about the equipment we are using, we aren’t going to feel good about our photography. If we feel that we are using “inferior” equipment, regardless of the reality, we just aren’t going to want to shoot or feel confident in what we are doing. Creativity and creative flow requires us to be free from other concerns and just create. We have to feel good about what we are doing.

So if I were to give my bottom-line advice as to what to buy, it would be:

You should own the equipment you like to use, feel good using and which you feel meets your needs.

Of course, if someone asks me my opinion about their purchase decision, I would have a lot of questions that I might ask to ferret out the real need. But I am not going to waste my time either.  How far I would go with this might be how well I knew the person and how they responded to the easy questions that I had already asked. Sometimes the decision is already made when they ask, they are just looking for validation, not logic!

Zone Plate on Medium Format film camera

Zone Plate on Medium Format film camera

I would even support someone always buying the latest and greatest if they happen to be someone who needs to do that—regardless of their reason (depending on the degree of this obsession, I might also support their going to see a psychiatrist!) But I suppose if you have the disposable income and the decision doesn’t adversely affect others’ well being, then why not? You aren’t going to be happy if you don’t do it. I wouldn’t recommend this but I would support it!

There are certainly real reasons for needing to change or upgrade equipment. We may have a need that has developed over time that can’t be filled with a current piece of equipment. Maybe we have decided to pursue a different genre or the way we use our images has changed and better or different equipment makes sense.

Even here, there are degrees of need and want-the psychological reasons. I know that while shooting commercially, I changed medium format systems more than a few times to just make things easier and move a bit more smoothly—there was a need but also a lot of the psychological want. Except in one case, I could have made do with the equipment I had been using for the previous 10 years.

Shot with Canon 1dsMKIII

Shot with Canon 1dsMKIII

But I think a more important area to look at, for most amateur and serious hobbyist photographers, is the source of those perceived and manufactured needs.

First, and maybe the most influential, is just the sheer volume of information we have available to us today and how it is often “pushed” at us even when we aren’t looking for it.

You can’t go look at a product on any major retailer’s site and then not constantly see an ad–from that retailer for that product–show up on almost every other site you visit. Most of us love equipment and seeing it constantly will wear on us.

Then, every photography blog (except this one) or photo sharing site is always reviewing equipment or discussing the merits of this or that new thing. Some of these seem very innocuous, as on the forums it is often someone’s simple inquiry about their interest in upgrading.

The point is that all that information is going to make you question your own equipment’s capabilities—especially if you are new and still insecure about your photography–as most of us are or were! When we hear about all the great things something we don’t have does, it just makes us wonder about how good our equipment actually is—especially when we aren’t totally satisfied with what we are producing yet.

shot with 4x5 view camera

shot with 4×5 view camera

Sometimes the hype by the vendors is so good that even if we are happy, and know better, it can make us want to “upgrade”! Yesterday I went to a retailer’s site to look up the price of a lens I tested a few years ago and they had a video about the lens right on the lens’ page. I hadn’t been 100% happy with the one I have and this one was widely regarded as the best in its class. My 3 day intensive technical and practical testing suggested that it was no better than the lens I had! I saved $2000. I watched that video and it almost made me want to buy the lens again!

So, if you know you are susceptible to this type of information—and we all are to some degree–I would recommend staying away from discussions or reading reviews until you have actually discovered you have a need. Then, be careful, there are a lot of opinions out there that aren’t well informed or from folks who wont have your same standards. Try to find very reputable people or sites for your information.

In fact, even after that, I suggest you test the equipment—rent it or even buy it from a retailer that has a reasonable return policy, even if there is a 10% restocking fee. That is often the same cost, or less, as a multi day rental—and if you find the new equipment doesn’t really meet with the hype and your needs, return it!

Another thing that I think can cause us to question our equipment is just the sheer size/magnification that we can view it at on our computers. Most of us are pixel peepers to some degree and if you have a monitor with a 100 dpi resolution, at 100%, you will be looking at your files at an equivalent print width of between 40 to 75 inches! Even with some of the newer, higher res monitors, you’re still looking at a 20 to 40 inch equivalent. The larger, the more flaws will show. Consider that an 8×12 print enlarges a detail area from what the sensor records by about 64 times while a 60 inch wide print would be about 1600 times—this is based on full frame 35mm. With a crop sensor, that could be as much as 3600 times! Evaluate your images based on the size you intend to use and not what you might/maybe/possibly use someday.

One of the things that we have to remember in all of this is that the most important thing is that we are making the images we want to make. Over the years I have purposely made the decision to use what might be considered inferior equipment because of what it could produce or because it actually met my need at that time.

Shot with Holga for The Atlantic

Shot with Holga for The Atlantic

A few years back, a major magazine, The Atlantic, hired me to create the images needed to illustrate their cover story.  They were interested in having me shoot that work in a specific style I was doing at that time.   Much of that work—and the images they had seen that attracted their attention—was shot with the toy camera, the Holga. I made sure they understood I would be shooting with that camera and they were fine with it.

For several years, I didn’t even use what we consider a “lens” for much of my personal work. The images are not traditional but they were exactly what I was looking to create. This was the Zone Plate and I have used this with several different formats.

About 4 years ago, I decided to shoot with my iPhone 4 for a specific reason and then, for a specific project. For the next 3 years, this was my most used camera—although I moved up to the 5 the summer of 2014 after the 4 spent a wonderful hour in a Sedona Jacuzzi! I’ve ended up with 3 different bodies of work from this camera. The one I have finalized and posted on my website, Lotus, has been exhibited with many of the images beautifully printed at 20×20 inches. In this case, the iPhone was actually the perfect equipment and that series would not have existed if I had been using my standard equipment. I explain this all in a 5 part series on my other blog, here.


shot with iPhone 4

Today, although I could choose to shoot large format or from several medium format systems, I primarily use the same 35mm dSLR and lenses I bought 8 years ago. It was state of the art then—the only full frame on the market and has a similar mega-pixel count as most higher-end dSLR’s today. There certainly have been a lot of “improvements” in cameras, sensors and such since, however, I haven’t seen the type of image quality improvements or relevant new features that would make me want to “upgrade”. Others might feel differently as they have different needs and wants than I do.

The point of all of this, as well as my presentation of the quote by Minor White and the work of Sarah Moon is that, again, what we need to focus on is the images we want to produce and having equipment that makes that happen.

Beyond that we are really just dealing with, and satisfying, our wants and those other psychological needs. We need to respect these as well but I suggest that we avoid things that we know can create them!

As usual, please feel free to share your opinions, comments or questions!

We’ll be looking at The Idea: Part 3 next week.