Photography: It Is—and Isn’t—About the Gear

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I'd been saving for months and months, which seemed like a lifetime, and I didn’t even have a driver’s license yet. I’d given my savings to my dad to pick it up early that day. I sat in class, and the clock seemed to be going in reverse. I had a volleyball tournament after school, but I hoped my dad would show up before the whistle. The match started, then the second game, and then the third, yet I didn’t see him. Then, in the fourth game I saw him come in with a brown paper bag, and take a seat next to Sharon. That just killed me—not sitting next to Sharon—but knowing that in that bag was basically my life's savings. Wouldn’t you know it? We tied up the match and went into overtime. That I was spiking with all my might goes without saying. Finally, with the last serve, an ace, the match was over, and before anything else, I ran over to the bleachers. He handed me the paper bag with a big smile. I opened it, and inside I saw that brand new Minolta 200 f4 lens I’d been saving so long for. I was in love!

Editor's Note: This is a guest blog post from Moose Peterson


That was 1975, and my love affair with camera gear has only grown with time. A lot of camera gear has come and gone since my first camera, a Minolta SRT 202.

Along the way, a whole lot of images have been made, and some knowledge gained, making the whole journey worthwhile. Without camera gear, our photographic dreams, adventures, stories—and most importantly, the stories of our subjects—would go untold. That makes our camera gear—the visual communicators—pretty darn important. But without our heart, imagination and passion, our camera gear would be just a pretty bunch of metal and glass. Photographers and their gear are a marriage, and like any marriage, while there are highs and lows, they simply can’t live without each other.

Picking the right piece of camera gear is no different than selecting the right f/stop, or finding the perfect light. The problem is, until you find any of these, it seems like you’re always in search of them. Having gone through the school of hard knocks on many occasions, I have learned a couple things about this gear question—even if the hard way. I would like to spare you of that, so let me share some thoughts on this topic with you.

Where Do You Start?

Hi, my name is Moose…I’m a gear-aholic!

If you’ve watched my career for very long, you’re probably quite aware that I’m usually the first to have new gear. This is very true to a point, and that’s the point I want to help you with. But in order to get to that point, I need to provide you with a little bit of background thought, philosophy—and most importantly—problem-solving trivia. And the very first thing I need to strongly emphasize is that just because I own a particular piece of gear, it won't guarantee you photographic success!

My selection of gear is based on three needs I have as a photographer. First, new gear has to solve problems which gear in hand doesn’t solve. Second, gear has to aid me in telling a visual story. Third, it has to pull its weight. I’m a businessman, and every capital expense must justify itself. I do that while keeping in mind one thing I learned long ago: Camera gear is the physical extension of our photographic imagination!

Advancing the Film

Back in the day, when you bought a camera body it came with a 'standard' lens. Unlike today, you had to select the type of 50mm 'standard' lens you wanted with your body. The 50mm lens was referred to as standard because it was supposed to be the closest to our natural vision (inaccurate information, actually). No matter, you often had the option of a 50mm f2, a 50mm f1.8, or a 50mm f1.4. There were no 'kit lenses,' there was no 'body-only' option. This always begged the question in my mind, “what is more important, body or lens?”

"Camera gear is the physical extension of our photographic imagination!"

To me, the body has always been no more than a glorified film-transport system (even if you’re shooting digital). With that thought in mind, when you start adding all the bells and whistles, where does that get you photographically? That’s when those three things I look for in gear come into play. For example, I had a couple of Nikon D3s in the camera bag, and they worked really well—darn good, in fact—and they were paid for. Then Nikon came out with the D4. What problem in my photography would the D4 solve that the D3 didn’t, and would it be worth the price solving that problem? Shooting video at night—that was what the D4 did that the D3 could not. My “style” of photography—which involves working with endangered wildlife and documenting their biology on film—was enhanced by the D4.

Many say, “When I learn all the features on the camera I have, I might buy the latest body.” While I kind of understand this, I’m not sure if I ever learn every feature of any camera I own, so the statement confuses me. I do learn and master all the features I need for my photography but, like Photoshop, there are always many more packed in than I need. That often makes me wonder if I’ve spent money on gear I really don’t need. That’s until I look at that one photo I know I wouldn’t have gotten without that piece of gear. And that comes from pushing ourselves and our gear, and not being satisfied with our results. That’s a photographer’s disease, in case you haven’t gotten it yet!

How do you select the right body, for YOUR photography? What does your photography require? That in itself might take some time—analyzing your images, desires and goals. With that in mind, ask yourself simple questions like, “Do I shoot action?...Do I shoot details?...Do I like to photograph people, or do I like to photograph landscapes?” If you say action, like sports or wildlife, then a camera with a fast fps (frame per second) shooting rate is what you should look for. If your answer is people, then a body with a fast flash sync might be very important. And if you’re into details and landscapes, a camera body with a big megapixel count is called for. Now, can you get a body that does most of what you want and still be successful? Of course you can, and you probably will, because compromise often comes into play in making gear selections.

“What is more important, body or lens?”

Focusing More Than Your Passion

Bringing our world into focus in the viewfinder is done using a powerful tool—the lens!

The lens is what takes the world that we see and feel, and literally and figuratively focuses it in our viewfinder. The camera is simply recording what we’ve focused on. In making that lens selection, the literal “focusing on” is a huge part of the lens selection. While lens manufacturers make hundreds of options for us to drool over, it is not their intention that we own them all (though they wouldn’t mind). If you look at my camera bag, you’ll find I own very few lenses, and when compared to those who come on my workshops, I’m usually the low man on the totem pole. It’s not the number of lenses you own that counts—it's having the right ones!

There are really two variables in a lens which I think you should consider when selecting the one that's right for you. We are visual communicators. What two attributes in a lens contribute to that storytelling? All that we see in the viewfinder, and how much is in focus—angle of view and f-stop. And just to make things more complicated for us is the fact that these two things are very much related, but that’s another story. Let’s keep it simple for now.

Lenses either take in a lot of the world, (wide angles), or a very little bit of the world, (telephotos/micros) and this is a result of their angle of view. To put it into simple terms, when you put your subject in that viewfinder, how much of the world around that subject do you need in order to tell your story? If you need a lot, then wide angle is the tool, and if very little, then telephoto is the answer. Image size is what many think of in lens selection, but when you look at those images you love, subject size is not what makes you love that photo. It’s the story telling, and that’s all angle of view.

In that storytelling process, is there another way to limit or extend your story? Yep. As I’ve already mentioned—depth of field—or as some call it, depth of focus. When considering lens speed, I want to encourage you not to think of shooting in low-light levels as being the deciding factor in your lens selection, but rather how little you want to say in your photo. Now, when you’re looking at 600mm lenses, there isn’t an option of f/stops. You are stuck with the f4 model. But when you look at everything from 24mm to 400mm, you sure do, whether you're talking about primes, zooms or both.

Here’s a real simple example I like to use: In photographing football, 300mm was, for a while, the focal length to shoot with. You have two options in speed, f/4 and f/2.8, the difference between them being $4-$5K! If that’s the case, why was the f/2.8 the standard lens? Because, at f/2.8 the folks in the grandstand are out of focus, and at f/4 enough detail comes through the background to prevent the player from popping big time. Angle of view and f/stop—they are the big players in lens selection.

Wait – I Want Answers!

We all want easy, quick and simple answers to our photography questions. I’m right there with you! But here’s what I say to most folks looking for “the” answer from Moose. Without knowing you, your style of photography or your abilities, I can’t recommend one piece of gear over another. You've got to figure that if my own camera bag changes from time to time, I don’t always have the answer for myself. How can I answer it for you? How do you find the answer for yourself? I’ve given you some thoughts along these lines.

Here are a few more. The one thing that has helped me from day one is renting gear. It is something I still do to this day, depending on it to not make more mistakes than necessary. The key to making rentals work is twofold. First, you need to rent the lens you need, rather than the one you lust over. That is the biggest challenge, whether renting or buying! How do you determine which lens you need? If you find yourself always wanting to back up when you shoot, you need a wider lens. If you find yourself always wanting to get closer, then you need more telephoto. What if you find yourself saying that there’s too much in focus? Then you might need a faster lens.

You’ve gotta ask yourself these questions before renting that lens, and others before renting that body. The next thing is to rent only when you are actually going to shoot with that gear. Plan your rental period for when you’re really going shooting. Don't just rent it and stare at it! I say this because too often when I talk with folks, they say they had the gear, but never had an opportunity to shoot with it. Borrowing gear from friends, taking a workshop and taking advantage of their loaner gear, all of these are great opportunities to “try before you buy.”

Here’s one of the greatest things about photography: We could all have the same gear, we can be standing in the same place, pointed at the same subject, and we’d all have a different image! That’s why I have no problem sharing what little I know. At the same time, it’s why we all might need a slightly different piece of camera gear. It’s because we are all different, and we all tell a story just slightly differently. Nikon or Canon, film or digital, long or short, video, there is no cookie-cutter right or wrong answer, because we are all different. So in looking for that right piece of gear, the quest starts and ends with what’s inside of you. The piece of gear that shares that—your heart, and the story you want to tell—is the right piece of gear. It is a fun, expensive, frustrating and exciting quest. You’ll do just fine if you remember: Photography, it is—and isn’t—about the gear.

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Great points to consider. I've read choose the lens over the body. For me, I would get a DSLR body that has the features that I want which would offer more control, more choices for me.

I wish that I could rent lenses for my camera, but Canon doesn't make the FD lens anymore.

For 30 years, I've had 3 lenses, the Canon 50mm 1.8 that came with my Canon A-1, an 80-205mm f4.5, and a cheapie 400mm f6.3 (remember Spiratone). Christmas 2011, I added a Canon 28mm f2.8 to my camera bag and I am loving it, having never shot wide angle before.

I went to an air show recently and used mostly my 80-205. I read that 300 is recommended for air show photography. However, I didn't want to use the 400 for the Thunderbirds because I have to adjust the exposure by adjusting the f-stop on the lens. For the fast pace performance of the Thunderbirds, I wanted automatic exposure. Next year, I'll have to see about getting the Canon FD 100-300 zoom.