I was relatively poor once. Relatively, as in I couldn’t afford a top-notch Nikon or Canon and I used a Pentax ME and ME Super with Vivitar and Tokina zoom lenses. Problem was I also was toying with becoming a photo journalist and I went to protests, riots and other events where I took photos just like the pros.
If you’ve never been in a gaggle of photo journalists (is that what a group of tightly bunched photographers is called?), I can tell you it’s quite an experience. You all squeeze together as close as possible to wherever the shot is expected, then the cops push you all back, forcing you to get too well acquainted with your fellow victims and then you rush forward again when the opportunity arises. In the meantime, your cameras and lenses slam into each other and get seriously banged up.
My old Pentax still bears the scars, as it lost its skin several layers deep on the corners. At that time, I didn’t care, because I had no alternative. But when I picked up photography again in the 1990s, the first thing I did was buy a Nikon F5 on eBay. I didn’t need a robust camera like that, but I guess I was like a child who after years can get the toy he was denied earlier. Don’t worry. I got over it and moved on to less robust cameras that actually made sense to me for what I did and only got a Canon 1DX when I started bird photography, this time not to withstand battles with other photographers, but to catch birds in flight.
As an amateur, though, I am often struck by the difference between my buying behavior and the purchasing choices of the pros I meet. A lot of us amateurs obsess about gear. What's the latest, what comes next after the latest, should I buy now or wait for the next one? How many megapixels? Will that be enough? Is the dynamic range wide enough? Will I get the picture with only 6.5 frames per second? That sensor size, that's just asking for too much noise in low light, isn't it? Etc. Etc. Forums and hours are filled with discussions over the specifications of cameras and lenses that have just been announced and aren't even sold yet. So little info, so much speculation.
And I speak from personal experience that all those gear forums produce an unhealthy amount of gear lust not necessarily connected to gear need. I've been a victim in the past and I might still be an unwitting victim at the moment, although I’m in selling mode right now.
So, whenever I meet a pro I'm always slightly taken aback that I'm the one who seems to know more about the latest gear, when he/she is the one with the more fundamental needs to have the good stuff or at least know what tools are available.
Case in point: when I was last in Paris, I met with an old friend who used to shoot in the world's hotspots for the French news agency AFP. Her images have appeared on the cover of Time magazine, when that still meant something, and countless other publications. She was really only familiar with the top Canon DSLRs, those fast ones for photojournalists, and was intrigued with the Fujifilm X100s I was carrying. That camera and its predecessor by then had been out for quite a while and created a stir in the marketplace, but she had never heard of it.
Another case in point: a while back, another pro came to my house to pick up an old film camera he was buying from me. He shot for Vanity Fair and Harper's Bazaar, among others, and once assisted Annie Leibovitz. His gear was the Canon 5D Mark III that so many amateurs were complaining about because it didn’t deliver the dynamic range of the Nikon equivalents. He used Zeiss lenses, but had recently learned that the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II was really good, a fact known to forum browsers for years.
And while he used the top Profoto line of strobes, I was the one to make him aware of the compact and mobile B1 line that had been introduced a while back and showed him my copy.
A few days after our encounter, he flew off to Iceland for a commercial or editorial shoot and took the film camera he had bought from me. Upon his return, he sent me an email with an image he had taken with that camera. He had had the camera for one week and had used it, while I had it for several months and sold it because I never used it, thinking too much about the hassle of having the film developed and scanned.
Now, I’m not one of those who claims gear doesn’t matter. It does matter and for certain types of photography it matters lot. Most cameras suck at shooting fast birds in flight, so taking those for that job is a waste of time. My Pentax wouldn’t have survived a daily onslaught of mob photography and would have been a bad choice for a professional photo journalist. So, yes, gear does matter.
At the same time, once you have the gear that can deliver the kind of photography you seek to produce and allow for a final output that is satisfying to you, money and time are better spent on learning, exploring and shooting.
I hope to follow my own words this year.
By John van Rosendaal