Being a better fisherman

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite (April 2004)
Canon EOS 10D
1/15 second
F22
ISO 100
48 mm

“Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.” 
― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

I don’t fish. But then, Norman Maclean’s words really aren’t about fishing anyway. I’m reminded of his quote every time I see photographers frozen by minutia, mired in the moment by small distractions that matter very little on the path to their grand objectives (better pictures): There’s dust on my sensor, this lens is soft, the light was better yesterday, it’s too cold, it’s too hot, it’s too wet, and so on.

Near the top of photographers’ list of self-imposed obstacles seems to be an insecurity about their gear. Instead of doing what photographers do (photograph), many spend far too much time reading reviews, scouring specifications, checking prices, and abusing photography forums. Whether their goal is to rationalize the merit of their current equipment, or to justify the expense of a new one, all this makes me wonder how much they enjoy the actual act of photography.

There’s nothing wrong with your camera (or mine)

A related behavior I’ve observed since my switch from a Canon SLR system to a Sony mirrorless system is an irrational obsession with the photo equipment of other photographers (for example, mine). I’m always happy to answer questions about my photo gear (okay, almost always), but I’ve detected an underlying tone of insecurity in some (not all) of the queries, as if my camera choice somehow invalidates theirs. Some have wanted reassurance that their camera is still okay (it is), and others have actually tried to “suggest” that I’ve made a mistake (I haven’t).

I know I haven’t made a mistake because my needs are my own, I’m quite happy with my new gear, and I’m getting pictures I couldn’t have gotten before. End of debate. And for those who fear that my choice means their camera may be less than perfect, let me just say that there are many good reasons to get a new camera, to replace an entire system even, but seeing another photographer do it is not one of them.

A blast from the past

If you have a working DSLR of pretty much any vintage, you can get usable captures. To illustrate this point in my workshops and training, I sometimes go all the way back to 2003 and my Canon 10D, my first DSLR.

Shooting with my 10D today, I’d probably be crazy-frustrated with the 6 megapixel, 1.6 crop sensor, it’s postage-stamp LCD, poor low-light performance, and limited dynamic range—but that doesn’t change the fact that I got great images from that now ancient beast, images that I’ve enlarged and sold (in person, to people who could walk right up and scrutinize each pixel) prints up to 24×36. Images that people still buy. In other words, if the images I got from that camera are still usable, there’s no reason 10D images, or whatever ancient camera that might serve as your flagship capture device, clicked today wouldn’t be usable.

Time is on your side

So how long should you wait before replacing your camera? That’s an individual decision based on many personal factors. My general recommendation is to hold off on a new camera until you’ve upgraded all your primary glass (the lenses you might use on any shoot) and your support system (tripod and head) to the best possible.

These things will serve you far longer than whatever the latest and greatest camera might be, and really, the longer you can put off that new camera purchase, the better the technology will be when you’re finally ready to do it.

I digress

That doesn’t mean there won’t be temptations. For example, like an ex-girlfriend trying to lure me back with triple-D implants, Canon has announced a 50 megapixel sensor. Yikes. But if she really understood me, was in tune with my deepest desires, she’d have known I wouldn’t be impressed, not even a little.

It’ll be interesting to see how the other manufacturers respond to Canon’s move. I’m okay standing on the sidelines of a megapixel war as long as manufacturers understand that most serious photographers prefer sensors that emphasize pixel quality over quantity.

But anyway….

Once you have all your lens and support ducks in a row, maybe it’s time to think about upgrading your body. Maybe. Start by asking yourself what’s important to you.

The Canon 5D Mark III filled most of the basic camera criteria for me: full frame, 100 percent viewfinder, (decent) weather sealing, functional live-view (much better than the 1DS Mark III it replaced in my bag), and multiple card slots (miss that in my Sony a7R). I ignore many oft-touted features that are important to others but mean little to me, such as: resolution, autofocus, video, in-body image stabilization, and touch-screen LCD.

Landing the metaphor

I guess the point is that buying a new camera is never an emergency (unless you don’t have a camera). Take your time, set your budget, and be honest with yourself about what you need (and don’t need). In the meantime, get off the computer, grab whatever camera you have, and get out there and shoot—you can’t land fish without putting a line in the water, and you can’t take pictures without putting the world in your viewfinder.

Visit my website to purchase prints and see my photo workshop schedule

A Canon 10D Gallery

 Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

4 Comments on “Being a better fisherman

  1. I could not agree with more about equipment obsession. I’m President of the Hub Camera Club, the winner of photographer of the year as long as I’ve been a member uses an advanced point and shoot camera! No lens interchangeability, no super zoom, just a great eye and talent.

  2. Well said, as usual, Gary – I recently upgraded from an Olympus E-610 to the OMD-1 as the technology was simply getting on the ancient side. Love my new gear, never think about it any more, just focus on getting the image. The new gear contains a lot more capability, as you rightfully note about your old 6 megapixel Canon. I took some great shots with that E-610 and sold some as large as 20 X 30. My new stuff is more forgiving, with better everything that helps get the image in the camera. Just finished a day at the Desert Museum in Tucson and never gave my gear a second thought, focused instead on creating images from the marvelous sights I was seeing. Can’t wait to get back out there and shoot some more!! Big season coming up – Havasu Falls, Monument Valley, Death Valley, Big Sur, Pinnacles, Yosemite, Oregon coast, Olympic and Mt. Rainier. When I see what this new gear is capable of I just get more excited about shooting; after all, is that not what photographers do, shoot photos?? Great post, man.

  3. Well put. One should never let equipment get in the way of enjoying photography. My personal philosophy is that the “best” camera is the one you have with you that lets you take the picture you want. I can think of quite a few impromptu rainbow and sunset photos I have taken with point and shoot cameras because I wasn’t on a photo trip and didn’t have my SLR with me.

    For sharpness I fully agree with your statement that one should upgrade their primary lenses and tripods before moving to a high-megapixel camera. The counter argument I would give though is the dynamic range and low-light capability a new body might give. If a new body is notably better in those areas, an upgrade might be worthwhile even using your old glass: Your photos won’t be sharper, but you may be able to take photos your old body just couldn’t handle. It just depends on what is most important to your shooting.

  4. Lovely images, Gary. I hope this means you’ll get back to talking more about your images and not dwell on your love affair with your new Sony gear. Thanks for sharing these “classics”, they are inspiring.

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