The Never-Ending Upgrade Path...
Another decade. And, GAH! The relentless racket of 21st century technological progress rings in the new year...
As photography content creators/consumers we know only too well that things can change so quickly, we scarcely have time to familiarise ourselves with our current gear before shiny, seductive new stuff emerges from the shadows to tempt us. No sooner has the latest body/lens light/modifier or widget/gadget come to market than there seems to be an alternative available a few months later that renders the previous version obsolete.
Or so the manufacturers would have us believe.
Look, I love gear as much as the next nerd and I do genuinely see advantages in trading up sometimes, but let's step back for a moment and consider; is the newest version of whatever you're using really so much better than the one you purchased last year or even the year before? Could a viewer (and, be honest; could you, in the real world?) actually see a difference if you placed two printed images, shot on each, side by side? Outside the fantasy OCD dominion of button-sniffers and pixel-peepers (you know who you are!) it's highly unlikely. Seriously though... Are the hyped-up new features really going to radically improve even a mere 5 or 10% of your output? I doubt that too.
And the dark art of corporate seduction is not just restricted to the marketing of cameras and digital imaging of course... That's why we so easily take for granted the technology upgrade path as an axiom of our 21st century lives. The evidence is everywhere... cars, computers, smartphones, televisions... All are subject to rapaciously rapid revision and replacement. It's a tireless rotation of re-design and re-packaging, and an ongoing exercise to create previous-model obsolescence by the boffins and marketeers who so consummately feed the seemingly insatiable yearning in consumers to possess the latest and 'best'. We are bombarded daily with temptation, virtually to the point of hypnotism, by manufacturers, advertisers and reviewers.
This new BMW does 0-60 in 4.9 seconds, the previous model only managed 5.1. Ooo! I must trade up immediately from the inadequacies of my now-obviously-obsolete jalopy!
Stop the carousel, let's get off and reconsider the ride for a moment.
One of the most important things I ever say to students or participants - or when I'm giving a presentation - is:
"It's not the gear you shoot with, it's how you shoot with the gear..."
I'm not the first to say this by any means, but just think about the greats of the 20th century. They were using gear that, in terms of capture technology, was way more limiting and far less resolute than even your average smartphone, never mind any current 'proper' camera. No histograms, no preview screen, no auto-ISO, just hard-core skills, hard-earned experience and hard to believe photography. So, think before you allow the tech giants to seduce you into spending yet more of your hard-earned cash and remember that, if you're looking to improve your portfolio:
1/. Buying yet more gear is quick and easy, learning skills properly and developing your creative vision is a lifetime of time-consuming toil and dedication
2/. Art is the message, not the method
Gear and method may be relevant to the art critic (the person who is paid to have an opinion - and that's a whole 'nother story, right?!) or to the armchair s**t-poster, but it isn't to the overwhelming majority of regular viewers who simply want to connect emotionally with art.
Following a bit of an office clear out, I recently challenged myself to go out for a sesh with my first-ever DSLR; a Canon 400D - from 2006 - with a knackered 18-55 plastic-fantastic kit lens attached. The camera had been lying alone; dusty, sad and neglected for the best part of ten years (I know how that feels, eh?) the sensor had about a hundred spots on it and the lens had a non-functioning AF. I charged up the battery (that retained it's charge quite normally... respect, Canon!) swabbed the sensor and went to the seaside. Here's a few of the resulting snaps...
Canon 400D+18-55 mm at 31 mm, f11 at 20 secs, ISO 100, 10-stop ND, tripod
OK, OK, the sensor is not as resolute as a current-gen one, the lens is a bit crap and the noise levels are a tad higher in the files, but this camera/lens combo is available for £50 on eBay... Is a Nikon Z7's snap of the same scene really 70 times better than that one?
Or than this one:
Canon 400D+18-55 mm at 18 mm, f8 at 30 secs, ISO 100, 10-stop ND, tripod
or than this one:
Canon 400D+18-55 mm at 18 mm, 6 secs at f11, ISO 100, tripod
That pesky law of diminishing returns...
When you wander round a truly world-class exhibition, WPOTY for example, it's the images' immediate visceral impact that overwhelmingly compels you and draws you in; the compositional skill and visual narrative brilliance that makes you linger on each to savour its creativity. It's the emotional content that will literally stop you in your tracks. It's not the gear that you think about - it's the image.
I most definitely am not a wildlife shooter. I already think there's enough patience required for landscaping but geez, wildlife is on a whole 'nother level of insanity... Visiting the Wildlife Photographer of the Year at The Natural History Museum last year I was almost half way round the hundred or so exhibits before I even thought about having a look at which camera or lens was used, the images were that captivating. These photographers are at the top of their game, not because they understand gear (although they clearly do) but because they understand light, composition and timing on a fundamental level; additionally they know how to craft depth, meaning and emotion into their work. Sure, they have learnt about gear over the years, but that technical knowledge is secondary to their understanding of the abstractions of their art - it's merely a discreet assistant that subconsciously accompanies their emotional response to a scene and aids in the process of creativity by producing the balance of interpretation and representation that their pre-visualisation skills demanded.
Now, I'm the first to admit that some of the WPOTY images would have been impossible to shoot without some pretty nifty exotic glass... However, if you don't have the opportunity or money to acquire optical exotica and you want to try your hand at a WPOTY entry or two, you're going to have to put your contemplation helmet on and work out how you can shoot wildlife with the gear you do actually have. Get out of the negative mindset that stops you from creating because you don't have the latest 600 mm f2.8 plus a trip to Zambia planned and start producing work with what you've actually got in your bag.
Find another way.
Get some inspiration online or from books and see what other photographers do when they don't have a 600 mm bazooka. Just off the top of my head: maybe get some extension tubes for a few quid and shoot some shallow-depth-of-field macro images of insects in your garden with your fifty-mill or your 18-55. Get out in the morning when the light's amazing and have a rummage in the undergrowth for some dewy creepy-crawlies...
And if you win WPOTY, you can leap along the upgrade path towards that 600 mm f2.8 with the prize money.