I have a theory about photography, and it’s mine, so you might disagree, but that’s okay. It doesn’t mean anybody’s wrong. It just means sometimes I see the world a little off-center, which works out, because I also hold my camera funny and frequently take my photos a little crooked, a little off-center, too.
Many photography blogs, and photographers, will tell you that gear doesn’t matter, you don’t always have to have the new and best and more; I agree with that, to an extent, because gear is never a substitute for hard work, more hard work, blind luck, and even more hard work. You really do just have to go out and shoot the hell out of life, most of the time. In bad situations and hard situations and shitty light. Hard work means you get better. But I don’t always agree with that idea, either, especially not when it’s followed by someone showing off their brand new $6000 lens that totally won’t “make a difference” in their shots, and that’s my theory: it’s not always about art; sometimes it is totally about your gear.
Commercial and mercenary and awful? Yes. True? Also yes.
I started taking photos, years and years ago, with a Canon 35mm film point-and-shoot. I have always been the one with the camera; I have a huge tupperware full of photo albums and 35mm prints to show for it. I upgraded to a Canon Powershot in 2002, when the Ex’s parents gave it to me for Christmas. In 2006, I upgraded from the Powershot to a Nikon Coolpix L3, which still bangs around in my everyday-day-job bag and gets used not as much, but some, and when I got serious about photography in 2007, it became a Gear Issue: I could not make the kinds of photos I wanted to make, mostly music photographs, with a point-and-shoot, with my point-and-shoot. It lacked the capability to handle the low-light situations. To move forward, I had to upgrade to an SLR, which is when Michelle sent me her Nikon F65. I spent a year learning to shoot on film, and more than that, learning how to fail as a photographer.
I failed a hell of a lot with film, often rather spectacularly (“You underexposed this entire roll.” “Whoops.”), and it was eminently frustrating and a phenomenal learning experience. I took a few great photos, some very good photos, and I spent a ton of money developing a lot of really, really, really shitty photographs.
In November 2008, my parents early-Christmas-gifted me with Six, my beloved workhorse Nikon D60 — and why the D60 is another post entirely, but the short answer is because it’s light and compact and I have skinny arms and small hands and need something that doesn’t weight a million pounds — and I immediately saw leaps and bounds of improvement in my shots; because I got immediate feedback on the shots I took, I learned the technical aspects of photography on an exponentially quick scale. I needed that gear upgrade to improve the photos I wanted to make. In February I bought my Nikon E-series 50mm off Craigslist for 60 bucks, and that improved things even more. I needed that lens; I wasn’t going to get anywhere further with the kit lens.
So my theory is that there are two lifecycles in a photographer’s life: the learning cycle, and the gear cycle. You can push yourself technically, and artistically, all you want, and you will always see large or small improvement, in a variety of ways, in your photographs, all the time. But I believe that, at certain point, you will run up against a wall, where your technical and artistic growth is impeded by the gear you are trying to work with. (There’s also the post-processing growth, but you know what? I’m not in the mood to fight about the place of post-processing in photography right now. So I’m not going to.)
You outgrow gear. You have to upgrade to keep getting better. And you should always want to keep getting better.
I upgraded my heavy full-manual E-series 50mm over Christmas, courtesy of my most excellent parental units; its replacement is a larger but lighter Nikkor 50mm with the auto-focus motor in the body, f1.4 instead of f1.8. I’ve shot two shows with it since, and the difference is nothing short of stunning, for me. I am not losing all my good shots to my own inability to focus, I can hold the camera over my head in a packed crowd and know that it’s going to do its best to auto-focus, and that tiny difference between 1.8 and 1.4 makes all the difference in some of the Triangle’s dark and divey venues. I am shooting less but ending up with more and better shots — I no longer need 6 shots to make sure I got one. I just need one.
(The difference between 1.8 and 1.4 in the Nightlight on Saturday night was staggering. I mean, staggering. I nearly cried with the happiness of it.)
I’ll miss my tiny pocket 50mm, small enough to tuck into my back pocket when I slapped the 100mm on Six at shows, because it has been my best friend for the last two years. But that lens and me, we went as far as we could. This new lens is the step I needed to take, because there wasn’t anything else I could do with what I had. I have something new, and now we see what I can do with it. I’m out of the gear cycle; I’m into the learning cycle again. I’m looking forward to it.
Mostly photography is hard work, shooting all the time, pitch emails, and faking it until you make it, or at least make something you’re proud of. Sometimes it’s replacing the 50mm lens that’s been your constant companion for almost two years with something that can do just a little more.
The photo at the top of this post is a film photograph, from the Princeton/UNC baseball series in 2008. One of the very first baseball photos I took with an SLR. It’s not perfect, but like other shots I’ve taken in the past, that one, that one I’m still really fucking proud of.