Being a Photographic Heretic (Part I of 2)

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I am still coming down from the buzz of energy and excitement that permeated the first annual California Photo Festival back in late September. In thinking about why it was so great, I looked beyond the fabulous location, the great weather, the amazing subject matter and the wonderful food.There was one more thing that made the festival a unique experience for me (and all the photographers who attended). Unlike a typical workshop where you encounter one teacher, it was the opportunity to see how thirteen different photographers approach their photography (and the question of what gear they use). 

 Working alongside the other pros reminded me of the amazing range of gear strategies different photographers use. I was also reminded how much of a heretic I am when it comes to the particular gear that I use.

I mean heretic in the wider context of “a person who holds beliefs in conflict with the accepted dogma,” rather than someone in opposition to any particular religious faith.

To see the roster of very different photographers involved, look here. The key factor to pay attention to is the wide range of specialties among the group featured there. I do documentary work, while others at the festival work as travel photographers, or do weddings or nature work. Each of these photographers, when working, has a different set of problems they face when photographing. Each, similarly, had different ways of solving their problems in terms of camera brands, lenses, supplementary lights and imaging software. Each pro at the festival also had a particular imaging workflow. Even though I did not see each person’s complete gear setup, nor did I study their workflows in depth, I came away with a few insights. (I also came up with ideas for improving my gear setup and my workflow.)

Speaking in broad-brush strokes, what did I note?

  • While many of the pros are involved in testing—and even creating—new software, just as many of us are loath to learn new software programs, so we tend to stick to what we know.

  • Similarly, while some photographers exhibited brand loyalty, many were perfectly used to mixing brands. They often said that if a given piece of gear solved their problem, they would ignore any brand loyalty.
  • The little things in each photographer’s bag were as important as the big ones. Pocket tools/Swiss Army knives and the like, were one example of something found in most photographers’ bags, regardless of the photographer’s specialty.
  • It may be the age/health status of the pros in the group, but for most of us older folks, large camera bags seemed to be de-emphasized, and traveling light (and thus moving fast) were emphasized.
  • The folks working in studio settings obviously had more gear and bigger bags. Despite that, it was interesting to see how many of their pieces of gear could do double or even triple duty.

The festival was a mix of classes—inside, focused on image processing, where you could study a photographers workflow—and shooting sessions outside, where you could see their gear strategy. Thus, it was a real in-depth immersion in both the gear and workflow strategies of a very diverse group of pros. So how did I fit in?

Well….

I have been something of a gear heretic for a long time. If you want to read the various gear strategies I have used over the years, you can see them here and here.

To read about what gear I currently use to solve my set of problems, take a look at my previous posting. You will almost immediately note that I am somewhat of a gear heretic, being a pro who uses gear that is not from one of the two major players, Canon or Nikon.

Suffice it to say that I have used both Canons and Nikons over the nearly four decades I have been a serious photographer/professional. I have also used Leicas, Mamiyas, Contaxes, and a whole bunch of other cameras along the way, too. The ideal I tried to live by is that each piece of gear is supposed to solve the problem I am facing at the time. I will freely admit that when I was younger, I tended to be swayed by the brand prejudices of other photographers. As I got older, I learned to ignore those and trust my own instinct.

Another example of being a gear heretic can be seen in how, when I finally did use Canons or Nikons, I used them out of synch with how each brand stood in the larger camera market. That means that when I used Canons in the 1970s and early 1980s, Nikon was completely dominating the pro SLR market. Then I switched to Nikons, using them from the late 1980s through the mid 1990s. That was about the time that Canon reversed the roles, becoming dominant in the market, primarily because of their quicker adaptation to—and better implementation of—auto focus lens technology.

I have blogged and podcasted in great detail about the tripod I use, which clearly goes against the grain of most common thinking about tripods. You can read more about that in this posting, and this one.

To see how a table-top tripod solves my particular set of problems better than a bigger and more expensive carbon-fiber, high-tech tripod, watch this podcast.

Besides being a gear heretic in the eyes of some folks, I am also an imaging-software outlier. I use a peculiar two-part workflow where I edit, archive, organize and keyword my images through one software, then make the final image files through another software. Since I went digital in 2003, I have used Expressions Media for the first step. You can read more here.

I have used various incarnations of Photoshop for the second step. I am well aware that Lightroom, in theory, does both steps in just one program. But for me, it's not nearly as efficient as the two-step system I use. I have recently started using Lightroom for making the final images, because I find the controls in that software even better for making the final files, as compared to Photoshop CS3. Oh yes, there is another bit of my heresy: I do not have Photoshop CS4, and doubt I will get CS-5.

At the California Photo Festival, as I was being the heretic with my Olympus gear and my table-top tripod, more than a few photographers gave me weird looks. Among the photographers (both pros and aspiring pros), who spoke to me about my photographic tools, there seemed to be two camps. Some dismissed my gear as not “serious enough.” The other folks who asked me about my choices in gear often got an impromptu lesson on how the gear I use solves my set of problems. More than a few folks who had those lessons, left our conversations with a new perspective on their own gear strategy.

I am hoping that I planted the seeds of “gear heresy” in a few people, so that they look past brand names to find out which gear will solve their given problems. Anyone who does that will inevitably get better at photography, which is all that really matters.