Blame the Equipment


It's not you, it's your equipment (NOT).

Original: 3/29/2010

All the pent-up "demand" for a D3x sensor in a D700 body or a 16mp+ top of the line DX body seems to be escalating the "I need more pixels" and "I'm gonna switch" rhetoric again. Couple the "missing" cameras with missing lenses and it seems that Nikon can't do anything right.

I call this the "blame the equipment" game, because the implication in all these user complaints is that without the "missing" camera or lens they can't produce acceptable, let alone pro-quality, work. Meanwhile, we've got pros at the top of their game producing some of their best work and not even using the latest generation Nikon bodies or the highest specified. See any contradiction there?

You bet. And the contradiction is simple to explain: users believe that new equipment will make them better. The world doesn't exactly work that way. I've heard Itzhak Perlman play both a common production violin and his Guarneri up close and personal. Yep, the Guarneri sounded better. But the production violin sounded better than any of you reading this could have produced with it. Indeed, it sounded better with Perlman playing than it did from the professional player who handed it to him could get out of it.

On the other hand, you can't get bass notes out of a violin, and you can't make it sound like a clarnet. Sometimes you do need a different instrument to make the sound. With cameras, for instance, a D3s is a different instrument when it comes to shooting indoors in low light than a D200 is. Clear and demonstrably so (see my just posted review).

But most of the people who come to me clammoring for higher resolution haven't yet gotten all the resolution out of their current instrument. They simply haven't practiced as much and refined their craft as much as Perlman did, thus, handing them the Guarneri or Stradivarious of cameras doesn't immediately make them better photographers.

When individual photographers come to me for equipment advice, the first thing I try to assess is whether they've actually hit a real physical limit with their current equipment or not. If they have, then yes, better equipment may get them to the next level. If they haven't, better equipment sometimes has the opposite impact, as mistakes don't get masked. I've even seen examples where someone getting higher level, more expensive equipment is more afraid to expose it to elements or any kind of risk whatsoever, which then means that they sometimes miss the shot entirely because they haven't even taken the camera out of the case.

I've written it before, but the camera body is usually the last thing up need to upgrade. I'd say that's certainly true for a landscape shooter who has a D2x, D300, D3, or D700. My basic order of "upgrading" is:

  1. Upgrade the photographer. Technique has the biggest and most observable impact on results. Want to be the Perlman of Pixels? Practice, practice, practice (studying at Julliard doesn't hurt, either).
  2. Upgrade the support and shot discipline. You can't maximize what you get out of the pixels if the camera is shaking for any reason. Just having a tripod isn't enough; it has to work and you have to know how to make it work.
  3. Upgrade the lens. Having shot thousands of test charts--maybe more, but who's counting?--and examining the results very carefully, the difference between a bad lens and a good one is as night and day as shooting those charts with a good lens and a 6mp and 24mp camera.
  4. Upgrade your understanding. Complaining about dynamic range of your current camera but not using UniWB? Oops. You may not actually know what the real dynamic range of your camera is. Ditto for sharpening, contrast, gamma, color, and noise. You're not ready for an upgrade to the camera until you've actually maximized your efforts on the current one.
  5. Upgrade your camera. If you've hit the limits of all the above, then it may be time to find a better camera (but that requires that you know how to do #4 and have state of the art #2 and #3). Note that it also may mean you need to move up a format to get a large benefit (e.g. 4/3 to DX, DX to FX, FX to MF).

Note that most posts you see on Internet forums indicate people are doing the opposite. First, they get the latest and greatest new camera. They don't achieve any great improvement in their images, so then they start down the path of #4. Once they mostly understand their camera, then they discover that perhaps their lens choice (that ubiquitious superzoom, because it's so convenient) may be part of the problem, so they tackle #3. When they can't get sharp results with a lens that is known to be sharp, some are wise enough to tackle #2. Only a few actually make it to Step #1.

Indeed, following the inverse order is the lazy way to "get better" (e.g. expect the equipment to make the improvement before improving your knowledge and techniques). That's why everyone wants to do steps #5 and maybe #3 to get "better results." Considering that those steps might cost you US$10,000 or more, how much better do you think you might be if you threw that kind of money at #1, #2, and #4?

The camera makers have a vested interest in marketing #3 and #5. They can't grow their companies or profits without a healthy and constant #3 and #5 going on. (Disclosure: I make money off of #4 and to a smaller degree #1 and #2, so I have a vested interest in conflict with the camera makers). But in my experience with workshop students, better equipment doesn't immediately make better photographs. Sometimes it actually leads to bad habits that will eventually catch up with you. Cropping, for instance. More megapixels means that many people simply substitute cropping for being in the right place with the right lens. That means that they're not paying attention to perspective and often ignoring relationships within their image (especially foreground/background ones). Worse still, if you try to substitute more pixels for focal length in some types of photography, such as wildlife photography, you start fighting #2 faster.

So before complaining that there's no D900 or D400 or some other new camera to improve your photography, take a closer look at what's really holding you back. I'll bet that it isn't the camera for the majority of you. Yes, thinking that it is the camera means that you don't have to be self-critical. But if you look at the best at anything, you'll discover that these people usually had to spend considerable time being self-critical to get where they are.

When I first posted this article, I received a lot of email about it. A few people seem to think that I'm saying that high-end equipment isn't necessary. Some even commented that it appeared under a photo taken with US$18,000 worth of equipment (D3x, 400mm). No, that's not my point. My point is that upgrading your equipment first and expecting a big improvement is the incorrect method of proceeding. Upgrade yourself and your skills until you need the higher-end equipment. In other words, exhaust #1 through #4 before attempting #5. When you can make no more gains at #1, you need to move to one of the higher steps to get further gains. But just jumping the gun and moving to a higher step doesn't actually guarantee you'll get any gain at all. Indeed, sometimes the opposite is true: you go backwards.

 


 

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