Wednesday, January 9, 2013

When the Camera Really Does Matter

A long time ago, so long ago that I can’t remember when or where it was, I read a blog post about gear. How having an expensive camera doesn’t matter…until it does. This post is about when I realized that it did. And even if you're not a photographer, there are still some good take aways from my story. So please...grab a cup of coffee (or tea) and read on.

The first thing you need if you want to start a photography business is a camera. Duh. Even if you just want to start taking better pictures of your travel or your kids or, in my case, your cats…you need a camera (um, pictures don't actually come out of thin air - so if you want to make pictures just accept that a camera is part of the deal). So then the natural question is What type of camera should I get? When really what we mean is How much camera do I really need to make awesome pictures?
I don’t know a single person who loves pictures who doesn’t want to take the best pictures they possibly can. And it is entirely true that you CAN take good pictures with any camera that’s available, because of course, it is the photographer who makes the photo, not the camera. There's a reason that Holgas, cheap, plastic, imperfect, toy cameras are still used by pros - they make beautiful, if also unexpected, images. But, the caveat to any camera can make a great image is that not all cameras take great pictures in every situation.

When I was searching for my first camera, knowing that I wanted to explore the idea of becoming a professional photographer, I thought long and hard about what to buy. I already knew how to operate an SLR, and definitely felt limited by the do-it-all-for-you settings on point and shoots, so a DSLR made the most sense. I needed something that could operate under a lot of conditions and would help me grow into the photographer that I wanted to be. And…most importantly…didn’t cost a lot of money.

Like any type of electronic, you get what you pay for. After doing a decent amount of research, I settled on a consumer entry-level Nikon DSLR because it seemed to offer a lot of bang for the buck…even though I had a feeling that it wouldn’t be long before I outgrew it. It cost about 1/5 of the price of the professional level cameras at the time, which were way past the outfield of my entry-level salary. It was, I thought, the best decision. That first camera was the most difficult to buy because there are two schools of thought that are oft repeated in discussions on buying your first DSLR: first, buy the best you camera you can possibly afford and second, save money on the camera body to invest in lenses (lenses are far more expensive and the technology changes far less quickly than that of camera bodies). The latter option sounded the best to my cash-strapped ears.

Fast forward almost two years after buying my original DSLR…I’m shooting a wedding in a super dark church and my consumer entry-level camera just isn’t performing in the far less than ideal lighting conditions. And most churches (this one included) don’t allow flash. Thankfully, I was second shooting, but that is no excuse because the primary photographer expected to get usable photos from me. Looking at them on a large iMac screen after the fact just proved what I knew even though I couldn’t see it on the back of my camera – this camera was just not made for shooting in really dark spaces, which is unavoidable in the wedding world. The pictures were so grainy from all of the digital noise – and it wasn’t the pretty kind of film noise we’re talking here. This was ugly distortion. There was no getting around it, no matter how much I wasn’t ready to spend the money to upgrade, it was what I had to do to continue operating in a professional capacity.

All of that is to make these points (in tl;dr form, as my husband so kindly informed me…I didn’t know what it meant, it’s some tech/internet jargon that he’s well versed in and supposedly stands for too long; didn’t read and I’m pretty sure what follows still falls squarely in the TL category):

  • As a professional, my gear allows me to do my job and do it well. I don’t just buy good stuff because I like to spend money on techy stuff; I actually need to in order to provide acceptable images. It does make a difference in the quality of my work. Think of it this way: if you hired a designer to develop a newsletter or brochure, you would know if they used publisher and you’d probably be mad because you could have done just as good a job yourself. 
  • A camera is not the be-all, end-all (does anyone still say that, or is it just me and my mom? Love ya Mom!), lenses really do make a difference, so buying the best you can afford applies here too. Those advocates of saving money on a camera body for lenses do have a point. The great thing about lenses is that they are very affordable to rent if you can’t afford the $1-2 thousand dollars that most good glass goes for outright. Truthfully, I’m not at a place financially where I have all of the lenses I need for every wedding – I have the basics that cover all the bases – and I still rent to make sure I have what I need for every event I shoot. It’s a cost of doing business. No excuses. 
  • Just because professional gear is [relatively] affordable today doesn’t mean that everybody should buy it or that everyone wants to learn how to use it. And it is perfectly okay if you don’t want to learn, it takes work and practice to get it down! There is absolutely a place for a consumer camera market and you can absolutely make good pictures without a professional level camera (see below…one of my fav photos ever I took with my first DSLR). But if you are constantly pushing the limits of low light and unusual situations, having the proper equipment will allow you to adapt as needed. So DON’T SKIMP in the name of saving money if you absolutely cannot live without professional features. TRUST ME.

And if you ultimately decide that having professional features is an absolute necessity for the types of photos you want to capture (like if you someday want to be a professional photographer), there are affordable options. After a few years, prices do go down because new models come out (except with lenses – some of them actually appreciate in value), and most new models have kinks and quirks for the few months they’re available, so buying a few-years-old model is a viable option. I am always cautious about it, but I did buy several of my most-used pieces used/refurbished and so far have not had any problems. Knock on wood.

I know this post is already really long and you’re ready for me to just shut up/get off my soapbox already, so if you are interested, I’ve listed my current gear below. I’ve made it my mission to add to it as I can, so it’s constantly evolving as I can afford it, and until then, I'm happy to rent. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way about trying to skimp on my work tools and am committed to having gear that can provide quality images in any condition.

What's in my bag:

Nikon D700
Nikon D5000

Nikkor 50mm 1.4
Nikkor 70-200 2.8 VRII
Nikkor 18-105 3.5-5.6 DX
Lensbaby Spark


For weddings, I typically rent a wide-angle prime (like a 35mm) and a portrait lens (like an 85mm) to round out what I already own. This coming year, I'm looking to add off-camera flash equipment and upgrade my second camera body.

Oh, and I believe the instagrammed caption on the first image in this post on the day that I got my "big girl" camera was actually Omgomgomgomgomgomgomg...OMG!!! Just for the record.

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