Photography is one of few industries where perception of skill feels quite so inextricably linked with equipment. For a lot of people, the start of their interest in photography is tied directly to the gear they buy: working out just enough about how aperture works to want to invest in a fast 50, getting enough of a handle of artificial light to crave a speed light or two, the eventual step into full-frame. But eventually there comes a point where the next step in your photography isn’t in your next lens, flash or camera body.
There’s no shortage of talented, successful photographers taking on photoshoots with just an iphone to prove that gear doesn’t matter. But when those same photographers have built their portfolios on top-of-the-line gear, it doesn’t always feel like one can succeed with modest equipment.
I’m a full-time photographer based in Perth, Western Australia. I shoot, weddings, portraits, food, events, small business, I say often that ‘if it’s small enough that you can move it into better lighting, I’ll enjoy shooting it.’ More importantly, to this article at least, I’ve built my career to this point with just three lenses, the newest of which came out a year after I was born— in 1995.
My camera bag consists of a Nikon D700, a 24mm 2.8D, 50mm 1.4D and 85mm 1.4D, and as many muesli bars as can be stuffed into the remaining pockets. My lighting kit is two SB-700s and a softlighter II on a little portable light stand. The D700 is a perfect camera, I can afford to replace it if I could, but I don’t want to. I would recommend the camera wholeheartedly to anyone looking for a solid full frame camera where every button is exactly where it should be. The same goes for my lenses. We spend a lot of money on gear which is incredibly well built, so why get rid of it?
Shooting one handed in the dark
I can, and have, operated my camera in pitch black with my left hand taken by a flash, reflector, holding a door open, preparing to throw a prop, you name it. None of this would be possible if I didn’t know, instinctively from six years of experience, exactly where everything on my camera was: in aperture priority, I can hear when my EV stop needs to be changed based on the sound of the mirror. I can tell when my camera can’t find focus even when focussing from the hip, and I can adjust aperture, ISO, shutter, exposure modes, focus points, bracketing, shooting modes, all without taking me eye from the viewfinder.
Knowing the limitations of this system is just as important: My 85mm doesn’t do well finding focus past fifteen metres, so I don’t even bother, I use live view. The focus on my 50mm is too thin to use the (vastly superior, at least on my camera) centre AF point and recompose until closed smaller than f/2.5 or further 3 metres. I can tell at a glance when my 24mm won’t be wide enough, in which case I do a stitch of several shots using photoshop’s auto panorama. I can tell exactly what situations will freak out my camera’s exposure meter, and just how to get rid of a flare in each of my lenses.
I know it seems like these are all limitations which could be done away with by buying, say, a set of G lenses or the sigma art series, or even a new body. This is something I fight quite often, but why would I trade in lenses I know like the back of my hand for ones that I don’t? I’m sure the sigma art lenses are very good, if you’ve already bought a set, I think you should be very proud to own them. But the upshot of my switching to them would be no extra images which I can’t take with my current setup. And indeed a lot of stress on my part when I eventually do stumble upon their shortcomings, without the knowledge of how to overcome them.
I promise this isn’t defeatist. I’ve said for years that when the camera finally comes up which I know for sure I’ll need the way I needed my D700, I will buy it. Until then, the roadblocks I identify in my photography are in marketing, networking, further developing my intuition with light and composition, directing my models… The list goes on, and there are just too many things to invest my time and money in before worrying about new lenses.
What needs to be said
A quote I picked up early in my career went somewhere along the lines of “Style is just the most efficient way to say what it is that you need to say.” This resonated with me, and has formed the way I think about style, less as a series of aesthetic of functional quirks overlaid on top of the art, but rather as the symptom of creating in the way I know how.
Knowing what my camera can, and especially can’t do frees me up to worry about the photos I want to take. Most of photography is problem-solving, between fighting the wrong types of light or wrestling the reality of a scene with the ideas in your head. This is hard enough without my camera throwing curve balls.
Inspiration comes as much from limitations as from possibilities, and having clear limitations leads me to do things I know plenty of other photographers won’t: Being without a telephoto is just what I need to justify stepping ever-briefly on stage to get a photo of a musician which very few other photographers would. Having no capability to zoom means I’m constantly looking for new angles to keep things fresh, and when a situation comes up when I have the ‘wrong’ lens mounted, I have to fall back on creativity to make the best.
Keep your expenses down
We hear a lot that you have to ‘invest in your business,’ but from who? The fact that a lot of the voices we hear online are sponsored by camera and photo equipment companies tends to confuse investing into our business with investing in the next and shiniest toys.
Investing in your business can just as often mean investing in a business course, a networking meeting, and moreover it can mean keeping your expenses low enough that your photography can pay your bills: There’s no better way to improve than to take photographs constantly, and if you quadruple your expenses with new lenses, camera bodies and lighting equipment, is it really bringing more money into your business? Or just pushing you to need to pursue more work, some of it outside of photography, where you could be focussing on your images and your work.
We’ve all heard that you should have the best you can afford, often from a photographer successful enough that they can fit a whole rig of broncolours on their tax returns. Yes, new equipment is a tax writeoff, but so is my car, my phone plan, a fair chunk of travel expenses. If you’re at the point where your tax brackets are genuinely asking you to buy more camera gear, I truly congratulate you. But I’m not there yet, and this article probably isn’t for you. For the time being, every lens I don’t buy is money I can invest into my business and also into my life.
About the Author
Josh Wells is a photographer based in Perth, Western Australia with an interest in storytelling, unique imagery, and tailored, fun photoshoots. You can see more of his work on his website, and also make sure to follow him on Facebook and Instagram.