Why gear won’t save you.
I recently came across a timeline memory on Facebook from six years ago. In it I was stating that I wanted a Canon 6d and a 50mm f1.4 lens along with a studio lighting setup. Apparently in 2013 these were #goals.
I had a good chuckle over it of course, looking back at what I thought was going to be the next big upgrade, the next tool that would make me a better photographer, it seemed silly to me.
In the years I’ve been shooting I’ve had all kinds of gear malfunctions and failures, and nearly as many moments where it’s totally a user error because I’m not thinking but also need to use some quick thinking to get back to making images. So after going back and cringing for a bit over all those moments, it made me think, maybe this should be more widely known, maybe others need to hear about failure so they can really get the point. Gear won’t make you a better photographer, if anything, during my years I’ve found that hindrances are more likely to help you grow than having all the right things at all the right times. More than anything though, gear won’t save you. Let’s lay out some scenarios and find out why.
So you want a nice wide angle shot so you can take in the grand scene before you, on your camera you have a 60mm lens with a 2x crop factor camera. (120mm equivalent). What happens then? “Guess we can’t d that shot, lets just take some close up portraits”? Nope, you step back. You can’t step back? Time to take this image. A series of 20 frames stitched into one wide angle frame at 120mm focal length. The compression and portrait accuracy of a longer lens with the perspective of something much wider. The real point here though is that when you’re packing a kit to go shooting you should know multiple ways to use a single lens, multiple ways to use a single flash, or any other piece of gear. You want to carry a kit that’s versatile enough that if a piece fails, the rest fills in.
Okay so, this was absolutely my mistake and one of those moments I referenced above. Stands were setup, flashes mounted, and then went I went to put the trigger on my camera it wouldn’t recognize it. I made the decision nearly immediately to not fiddle with it and just shoot without. Turns out later when I returned home the trigger just wasn’t seating into the mount correctly and a quick shove would have remedied the situation. On the opposite end there are a lot of people who rely on natural light but since going with my Lumix cameras I’ve been relying a lot more on off-camera flash. This was a swift reminder to not rely on anything but my quick acting and problem solving. You can’t be a “natural light photographer” just like you can’t be a flash photographer. You need to be able to be as versatile as your kit, shooting under whatever situation that may arise.
In a similar scenario to the previous one at this shoot my batteries for the flash were dead. Now, likely I could have gone out to the car and opened up a spare pack, yes, the spare pack that should have been in my bag already. If I had done that though what reason would I have had to find these beautifully side-lit scenarios? Pushing your gear sometimes pushes you out of your comfort zone at the same time. The natural light at this location was abundant and moody, from the windows to the moviesque ceiling spotlights the lighting here actually makes me love the venue that much more.
What about when it’s not a gear issue? What about when you’re swarmed by other people competing in your shot or competing for your shot? You wouldn’t know it but the above two photos are framed the way they are because there were about twenty people in my way in both frames. There isn’t a magic lens that will give you the ingenuity or ability to shoot through people, so the gear isn’t what’s lacking here. You have to move, to duck and go side to side, and shoot past, over, under, and between obstacles to get the shot in your mind. Sometimes when the shot in your mind is obscured or made impossible you have to have the quick wits about you to adapt and find a different shot. With that said these shots would have looked drastically different had I backed up and stepped to either side. Elbows, heads, and bodies would have filled my frame instead of the subjects I was going for. Side note the image on the left was taken with a twenty-dollar manual focus lens as well, so I won’t go on about needing the newest auto-focus gear either. The gear for the job will do, but at the end of it all it comes down to your speed and abilities.
Finally, what about when your gear absolutely fails you. I’m not talking some dead batteries in a flash, or a silly mistake on mounting a flash trigger. I’m talking about liquid oozing from your cameras buttons, leaking out of the lens, shutter sticking on shots, camera freezing and powering off every third shot kind of failing. When the exposure meter in camera along with the rest of your digital display fails? Well, you certainly make your shots count. Like clockwork the camera was powering off after each third frame, so I used the first frame to take a test exposure, quickly adjust settings from memory, and use the second two frames to take my shots. I spent a lot more time timing the right frame and felt oddly reminiscent of film shooting. The camera was kaput after this session but it did its job and let me get the frames.
The idea that gear will save you is contrary to the idea here, that gear is most consistently what is failing you. From dead batteries to focal length limits and liquid logged camera bodies, gear is usually what we’re trying to buy more gear to overcome. You buy a second body to backup your first, you make sure everything has dual card slots, you carry six memory cards, two of every lens you own, two tripods, fifteen batteries, thirty speed lights, and then it’s a backup for your backup’s backup and on location hard drives to dump cards on when all along you’re trying to advance your gear so you don’t have to advance yourself as the person behind the kit. Gear can be a really useful thing, and I don’t see any of us being photographers without a camera, but gear won’t save you, the person behind the craft. Mo’ gear, mo’ problems.