Why the right hardware is liberating

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It might actually be better to start off with the corollary: why the wrong gear is frustrating, or at best, obstructive. First principle: what’s good for you isn’t necessarily good for somebody else, and vice versa. This may seem obvious, but the number of people who are chasing and lusting after hardware that simply doesn’t make sense for them is quite mind boggling – the internet seems to be full of them. Of course, it’s highly likely that those who have found camera nirvana are simply out there making pictures and have stopped thinking about the whole gear train – it seems much more productive to me to spend time making pictures instead of scouring fora for obscure solutions and rumour sites hoping for magic bullets. It boils down to this: most people make different images. Considering this objectively, it means that for different objectives, different tools are required. Yet what I can’t understand is the obsession with finding a one-size-fits-all; the manufacturers want to do this because it makes economic sense, but the whole point of having choice is so we as consumers do not have to.

Second principle: know what you want to achieve creatively, or at least pictorially. It’s all well and good to experiment – and necessary, in the pursuit of excellence and finding out what appeals to you personally – but the fear is always that one is going to ‘miss out’ on something by not having a full complement of lenses to cover 14mm to 600mm. The trouble is, even assuming the camera fits for you – there’s always the risk of finding that you don’t have what you need on the camera at the precise moment you need it. On top of that, it’s no fun being a pack mule. Even in professional situations on assignment, I’ve almost never found that bringing something ‘just in case’ ever works out well – I fall back to the core focal lengths. A spare body and ancillaries (toolkits, batteries, cleaning kits etc.) is definitely more critical.

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As close as I get to a general purpose solution that hits the right notes responsiveness, image quality and specificity of purpose – yes, they’re older cameras – a Hasselblad H5D-50c and 501CM/CFV-50c, to be precise.

This is the first place where one’s focus starts to waver: if you’re trying to visualise everything, then inevitably you land up getting nothing. It’s best to concentrate on one thing at a time, subject-wise or perspective-wise. Only then is it possible to create an environment that’s conducive to creativity. By introducing restrictions, you are forced to find a solution. If you’re only carrying 50mm, then you’re forced to find a way to make the composition work at 50mm – even if the instinctive ‘best’ framing might suit a 28mm or 100mm better. You are forced to either distill the essence of the scene and figure out what you don’t need, or to include additional context and structure to ensure that your subject still stands out despite the lack of punch-in isolation. I find that my best work from a creative standpoint comes when I have to make do – but make do with a tool that doesn’t get in the way. Experimentation is still possible under these restrictions, of course: beyond the obvious described above, you can still focus on different things at different times – just not all at the same time.

Those who suggested shooting with a single camera and lens for a year to learn the focal length were right: after that length of time, either you’re operating the hardware completely intuitively leaving you to focus on the composition, or you’ve given up and thrown the thing out the window in frustration. There’s a learning curve involved with any tool – and there’s no way around this other than using the tool under a very wide range of situations so both its behaviour and response is predictable, and you understand its limitations and strengths. The more complex the tool, the steeper that learning curve is going to be. There’s no shortcut, either – practice, practice, practice. I suspect a lot of the frustration online stems from simply not putting in enough hours and writing things off too quickly.

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Unmatched for street and documentary work. But not my first choice for sport.

Even though the operator is usually the limiting factor to the output, there are often restrictions that simply make no sense, too: there’s no point trying to shoot fast moving action with manual focus if you’re not experienced with manual focus, for instance; or if your camera has a finder that makes it impossible to determine critical focus at all to begin with. At the same time, one has to know when to quit. I’ve often been accuse of being a fanboy or biased critic by those who aren’t familiar with the way I shoot: if I can’t make something work for me, it’s not for want of trying. The tool simply does not work – it’s certainly not in my interests in any way to buy something and then sell it, take a loss and miss shots just so I can pan it. I’ve got better things to do with my time and money, and that’s secondary to missing the image altogether. There’s nothing more frustrating than the near miss, and here is where the scientific method becomes important: is it the operator, or the hardware?

Consistency of workflow comes into play in a big way, too: how is one going to evaluate results – especially when chasing diminishing returns or subtle qualities in an image – if your shot discipline is somewhat shaky or you use a different piece of software for each camera? Yes, you might be able to squeeze a little more dynamic range or resolution or lower noise out of something else, but remember that the software (and computer hardware, like monitors) is also a complex piece of equipment. If anything, more so than the camera since there’s only one way to make a picture, but there are probably at least a dozen ways to do any given thing in Photoshop (or your program of choice). If an experiment is run with more than one variable, there’s simply no way to determine which variable is at fault when the results are not as expected.

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Great for handheld video, but not landscapes.

I suspect the hardest thing to do as a photographer in today’s day and age isn’t making an outstanding image – we’re not wanting for subject matter. It isn’t selling your work; it isn’t being noticed on social media, and it isn’t finding a style or genre to suit you. It’s avoiding the trap of continually chasing unicorns in the hope that the next thing may be the one. With the frequency of today’s product releases, two things happen: we never fully figure out our hardware, and the new stuff isn’t fully debugged. Of late it seems that each new release promises much, but falls flat at something else – often with some pretty major problems such as AF, exposure, speed/responsiveness, ergonomics etc. It’s as though in the quest for bigger numbers on the spec sheet, the fundamentals have been forgotten. Despite how it might appear, I have no desire to be a beta tester or debugger – I just want to make images. I suspect almost everybody else starts out that way too, but somewhere along the road we get lost and find ourselves at B&H or Yodobashi or somewhere similar.

My own personal meanderings through the equipment landscape have been frequent and expensive. Frequent, because I know what I need my gear to do, but I can’t know if it can accomplish it until I’ve used it in the field; expensive, because you need to make an evaluation off a complete system – and because there is a price-performance curve, and the best simply costs exponentially more. I certainly don’t do it for the fun of it, and now that I’ve found a system that works for me – I’ve stopped looking. My interest in equipment extends only so far to its capabilities as a tool and enabler for my creative objectives. Despite this, I’ve often been accused of being hardware-obsessed or fanboy-this or hater-that; the simple reality is that I know clearly what my creative objectives are – that is of no importance to anybody other than myself and my clients. Making snap judgments to suitability make no sense.

Bottom line: know what you want to do. Figure out how that translates into critical factors for hardware – perhaps system completeness for a working pro; perhaps portability and weather sealing for a hiker or adventure photographer; perhaps resolution and dynamic range for the fine art photographer; speed and AF tracking for the birder or sport photographer. Don’t think there’s a one-size-fits all that’s got everything: there isn’t. And those that might come close will still have compromises in other areas; optimising our tools is about figuring out which of those compromises don’t matter. I’m willing to carry the weight and give up some speed and AF tracking ability, but not compromise on system completeness or overall image quality. I’d rather carry my H5D with one lens than a compact superzoom, for instance – but my mum wouldn’t be. Objectively demo and assess the equipment shortlist that meets those requirements; ignore everything else, no matter how tempting it might be. Once you find the gear that works for you – stop looking, and make pictures. MT

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