Sunday, February 17, 2013

"Necessary" Equipment

A question I get asked often:

"What equipment is 'necessary' to be a well-rounded photographer?"

You're not going to like the truth.  People sometimes think that if they have the "right" tools, then their work is suddenly going to be fantastic.  The reality is that the work is only as successful as it can be in relation to the amount of effort that is put into it.  Just like one can't run a marathon on a whim, and instead must practice and become disciplined, so it is with photography.  A camera is not a magical tool that turns anyone into an artist; instead, it is a medium that an artist uses to create their vision.  

A had a professor in college whose favorite question to new students was, "who controls the outcome of the image, the photography, the camera, or the subject?"  This is a question I have posed before on this blog, and one whose answer I will reinforce again: it is, always has been, and always will be the photographer.  Any romantic ideas to the contrary will only work against the photographer.  There is a reason why professional photographers are often stereotyped as being bossy, pushy and rather cold.  It is a profession that demands distance and emotional detachment.  As unattractive as it sounds, it is necessary that we do not get involved in the nuanced drama of our surroundings.  And yes, I do hear your grumbling murmurs of disagreement: "well, didn't it work for that one guy?"  There are always going to be exceptions, and yes, a little affection for your subject can go a long way, but for the most part, these same photographers are still firm in their belief that they are the sole creators of their photo.

Before I go on, I want to make sure that we all understand (me and  you, the reader), that my comments are directed at those who consider themselves "serious" photographers, as in, people who have not only invested "serious" amounts of money into their equipment, but also "serious" amounts of time, not only in the act of photographing, but also in research, printing, manipulation of the images, and in the creation of cohesive collections of work.  Everyone has differing ideas as to what is "necessary" in an equipment arsenal, and I expect some argument from other photographers, but here is my personal list to cover all bases:

  • A computer.  I consider this more important than a camera.  Blasphemy, you say.  Well, here is my logic.  Cameras these days are cheap, and they are everywhere, even on your phone.  Anyone can take a photo.  What they can't always do is manipulate it, store it, and share it.  A computer will allow you to do all these, and set you on a course for building your own studio.
  • Photoshop.  I don't like the word 'purist.'  To me, being a purist, as it is modernly defined, is exclusionary.  As an artist, I am always intrigued by the potential for undiscovered tools.  For a photographer, Photoshop should be a requirement, if only to fix pesky uneven horizons, or to equalize colors, or merely to prepare an image for print.  Photoshop is expensive, user-unfriendly, and a hassle, but it is a necessity.  
  • Okay, now you need a camera.  Sure, a nice digital SLR is great, but I have also taught students with no financial possibility of acquiring one, and this did not stop them: they used old, defunct mobile phones, the photocopier at the library, a public scanner, and even old photographic paper.  If you can't wrap your head around this, then you need to educate yourself and re-examine the history and definition of "photography."  Thus, you will see why a computer and a means to manipulate and share your images is more important.  Now, in case that you can afford a single-lens reflex camera, you don't have to immediately go in whole hog: just something that can shoot in manual mode will do, and preferably one that has interchangeable lenses.
  • Lenses:  creative opportunities in photography abound with lenses (or the lack thereof: such as in pinhole photography).  Plastic lenses can be as much fun as glass lenses.  Keep in mind that the better the glass, the sharper and "better" the photos, and therefore, more expensive.  In an ideal world, these are the lens sizes I would own:
    • Wide-angle: at least a 10mm, for shooting interiors and architecture.
    • A variable lens, from at least 28mm to 70mm, preferably 135mm, for those "general" shots.  This is a good carry-around lens that gets most jobs done.
    • A fixed 50mm lens, for food shots.  Best lens ever for food shots.
    • A fixed 85mm lens for portraits.  This is the magic size for getting the most realistic-looking portraits.
    • A zoom lens, 100mm-300mm.  This is also a secret weapon for portraits.  And, of course, for getting those far-off shots.  
  • A light source.  I'm okay with speed lights, and they have their use, but I will exchange them for a single strobe any day.  Any strobe will do.  There are pretty cheap ones out there.  The reason behind this is that offset light beats direct light any day.  A set of strobes is invaluable.  You get extra-credit for getting strobes that can hold a charge and can be transported outside without the need for power cables.  
  • Stands of all kinds, and tripods.  Rig your own, it doesn't matter.  You need stands to rig your cameras, lights, and other photo stuff.  Clamps, too.  You can find some great DIY sites on the Internet; Home Depot is your new best friend.
  • A scanner.  A good photo scanner can pull multiple duties, including as a camera!  Add it to your now-growing studio for extra effectiveness.
What about a printer? Well, to be honest, I am always fighting with printers, and although I would love to have a fancy one in my home, printing has come so far and so cheaply that I leave it up to the experts, and I work with a few online that only accept work from professional photographers.  Remember, printing is as much of a skill on its own as photography is, so it might not benefit you at all to do this yourself.  Your time is the most expensive thing of all!

Although I have not endorsed specific products on these pages, I'd be happy to share my current preferences through private message or e-mail.  Send me your thoughts and I'll reply as soon as I can.  There are so many new products coming out every day that my preferences might change month to month.  

Use this list as a blueprint to build your own arsenal of "necessities," and don't be shy about sharing your own list!