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Wednesday, 01 September 2010


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and that secret would be...?

How about sharing that secret with the rest of us?

I think there are two main kinds of geeks. On the opposite extreme are the creative types who shoot with a Canon Rebel and kit lens and don't understand why they should be concerned with anything else until theirs breaks. But among the geeks, there are the spec-heads who can't stomach gear that might produce the slightest bit of noise, corner softness, vibration, blown highlights, blocked shadows, distortion, purple fringing, lousy bokeh or any other potentially unpleasant visual effect and as a result, they take few pictures (to minimize the unpleasantness). And it's all kind of arbitrary, because they've settled on a format (like APS-C) that's good enough for their needs, but are always looking for better. Many of us are aware of these things and might desire improvements, but aren't obsessed.

The other kind of geek loves gear, but for different reasons. They want gear that "clicks" ... that makes them want to go out and shoot it. Like a sports car that begs to be driven. These are the people disappointed in the Sony NEX because it had so much potential to be that camera, but it isn't and so they'll settle for the limited dynamic range on their GF1 instead. These are the people that dream of owning a Leica M9, not because it will make their pictures any better, but because it will make taking them better. (Which might lead to them being better).

This is very true. Somewhere in that chain was where I realized that while technqiue in every area came pretty naturally to me, that was actually the easy part. The hard part was making pictures that would make more people than just me happy, rather than just being able to print them really really well. :)

(...And I believe that, really I do. But I'm still a geek, standing tall. And practical. So I emailed Jona privately and gave him a secret for good stuff to buy for almost no money.)

Oooh do tell please

/lurker on TOP

Sure its not about the equipment, many (most?) will come to realize that at some point, but inferior equipment can be so *frustrating* at times. Frustrating like a set of powerlines in a gogeous scene, or a missed opertunity due to rapidly changing light, or a really great shot where you botched the focus somehow and didnt realize until later.

There are a million obstacles in the way of great photos, an accomplished photographer is one who picks through the obstacles deftly, a great photographer is one who uses the obstacles constructively. Having an obstacle built into your equipment is inevitable, no equipment has unlimited focal length, unlimited aperature, unlimited sensetivity, or instantaneous mind-reading reaction times. The pursuit of high-dollar gear is simply the desire to reduce these obstacles so that the gear itself requires less attention and restricts fewer opertunities, but ultimately, that doesent change the game much for the average hobbyist.

I'm digitizing some family slides taken in the 1950s and 1660s taken by two members of my family, one used a Zeiss SLR and the other used an Argus C3. The photos made with the Argus are vastly better than the ones made with the Zeiss.

Share the secret to good stuff for almost no money? Please?! ;0)

Working hard is not more important than having something to say.

Gee Mike... can you let us all in on the secret about buying good stuff for almost no money???

"and that secret would be...?"

...A secret?

If I said it on the blog, it would cause a run on that equipment on Ebay, and the prices would go up. That sounds conceited, but it's happened before.


And look at this! :)

Perhaps this should be the photographer´s Hippocratic Oath.

"Working hard is not more important than having something to say"

I think it is, with all due respect, because without hard work you can't say what you want to. A person might have the great American novel in his or her head, but what does it matter if he or she hasn't got the discipline to write a book?

I've known plenty of photographers who have had lots to say, but they don't say it because they don't do the work to bring their projects to completion in a form that others can see and appreciate.

I should write this quote on the wall of my new darkroom: "Do your work." —David Vestal.


Mike's "message to Jona" is one of the truest things I've read on this or any other website.

Ever try to make good music on a cheap guitar? Geniuses can do it I suppose, but most of us need something better than an "Esteban."

Hugh - your relatives don't include Samuel Pepys do they? In 1660 he had his first cup of tea...

You can't buy good pictures (Well, you can -- if you buy prints of pictures shot by other people) but you can buy off annoyances.

But this goes back to the rule I keep repeating at people -- upgrade your equipment when you have a clear idea of what the upgrade will get you relative to what you have now, and when you think that benefit is worth the cost. That won't save people from weird beliefs about benefits they might get, but those people won't listen to me anyway.

You can nearly always improve your pictures more by spending a few hundred hours in well-chosen practice than by spending a few thousand dollars.

I would argue that having good taste can be antithetical to being a good photographer.

g said:

"Working hard is not more important than having something to say."

I gotta agree with this. Nothing is really sadder than an artist who works hard, but really doesn't have much to say -- a problem that you see with man (most?) art school graduates, and in particular those who graduate from those "atelier"-type painting schools that emphasize imitating the "masters," etc. In photography, it'd be those people still doing f64-landscapes. They are often technically accomplished, but their works are essentially empty.

Serious artists are people who are generally bursting with something they have to say, then find a medium in which to say it. Great artists add ferociously hard work to that...


If cameras were free and light cost money, people's photographs would be much better.

They would take cameras for granted and spend all their time shopping for good light.

"I think it is, with all due respect, because without hard work you can't say what you want to."

I find that without hard work I often don't even know what I want to say!

My ideal system would be way out of my budget at this time in my life. I even had to sell off some of my better equipment to take care of everyday expenses for the family. So most of my work has been done with Canon 20d's and decent lenses,or the Pentax Kx with old primes, or even 40 year old 35mm film cameras. Sure I'll get the system I want one of these days. Until then I don't let that stop me from doing my work. I think it's made me more aware of finding a way to get the best perceivable bang for my buck.

Years ago I knew someone who always carried around two Nikon FM's with Metz potato mashers, but he could never afford film in them...
This was also the guy who took out a loan to buy a Rolex...

John Camp,

There are plenty of great artists who have nothing to "say" at all.

They're called formalists.

For many artists, content follows form, rather than vice versa. Most abstract artists fall into this camp.

@ John Camp: "Nothing is really sadder than an artist who works hard, but really doesn't have much to say..."

Well, I'd have to suggest that saddest of all is the artist who has much to say but nobody gives a whit. That's pretty common, too.

Back to topic, Hear, Hear to Jona!

These days, since popular photography merged into consumer electronics, I strongly suspect that most "photography" is practiced behind a keyboard. Who (among us geezers) would have guessed that the kids looking for an easy A (and easy dates) in the high school typing class would one day rule photography?

I bring this one up a lot, but it is one of my favorite Sunday Morning Photographer columns, and one that I perennially wish Mike would update (not that there's much to update, really). Whether or not it has anything to do with Jona's "secret", it is about how to get some top-quality gear for little money:


It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage. ...George Orwell "1984"

Every time we discuss this someone says: "there are photographers that will take fantastic photos with crappy cameras/lenses and photographers that will take crappy photos no matter if they have the best equipment money can buy".

I believe this thinking is flawed. The comparison should be between photos taken by the same photographer with the "good" and the "bad" equipment. All other things being equal, the camera/lens will have a serious impact in the final quality of the images. That is why most photographers who say it is not about the equipment usually do use (what they think is) the best equipment.


I'll keep that in mind about the camera and lens not mattering the next time I photograph a bird in flight.

Try that rangefinder boys.


Point taken. If you have specialized tasks in front of you, you might need specialized equipment. Maybe I should have prefaced that with "For general photography...."

And I actually quite like bird photographs. I have a friend who's an ornithologist and I send her links to outstanding bird photographs every time I come across one.


"They would take cameras for granted and spend all their time shopping for good light."

Actually people with 5DIIs are spending thousands on pro lighting gear.

David S said,

"There are plenty of great artists who have nothing to "say" at all.
They're called formalists.
For many artists, content follows form, rather than vice versa. Most abstract artists fall into this camp."

There are damn few "great" abstract artists. (Though there are a few, maybe. If you talk yourself into it.) Picasso insisted on the primacy of subject matter, and Picasso was right.

Ken Tanaka said,

"Well, I'd have to suggest that saddest of all is the artist who has much to say but nobody gives a whit. That's pretty common, too."

I disagree that it's common, but it surely happens. I find that most people who *really* have something serious to say, original and non-inane, generally find an audience. But I know your own Leon Golub almost gave up painting because he couldn't find an audience, until politics began to shift in his direction...and now people recognize some of his work as striking, original and thoughtful.


You´re right Fred, but Jona commented "I have been trying to learn to be a better photographer but my problem is that I'm not sure what I want to shoot- I need a theme." Jona doesn´t know if he likes shooting birds,nudes or landscapes.
Incidentally Mike told us the secret or one of his E-bay secrets a couple of years ago. I´ve got a feeling it´s the same one, they never went up in price on E-bay. I´m the first one to never stop to listen to good advice, we´re all eagerly awaiting the new D700 replacement and soon the D700 will be dismissed like a 100 other cameras.

the secret is to look for items with zero bids ending soon:


just search for Yashica, Minolta, Konica, Nikon, Canon, Olympus - whatever you fancy.

Using limited gear can actually improve one's photography: the limitations make the photographer more alert and more creative, forcing him/her to actually SEE. Perhaps this is Leica's secret.

"If cameras were free and light cost money"
You obviously haven't shopped for lighting equipment. You can easily spend $20,000 for a single pack head umbrella setup from Prophoto or Broncolor. I think most commercial shoots involve more investment in lighting equipment than cameras and lenses.
I on the other hand very much like the built in flash on the Sony R1

I would wager that most studio photographers have more invested in light-SHAPING equipment--gobos, stands, scrims, tents, soft boxes--than cameras...never mind the lighting gear itself!

When I knew anything about this, the average advertising studio cost about $100-120,000 to outfit, with $50-60,000 being considered a practical minimum and some top studios having $500,000 worth of gear. That was in the '80s.


I now have a ton of "stuff" but most of my best images were taken when all I had was a single Rollie TLR.

The pursuit of high-dollar gear is simply the desire to reduce these obstacles so that the gear itself requires less attention and restricts fewer opertunities

ILTim, let me counter that with something I heard from an old professor of photography: "The best camera is the one you know."

If that camera has limitations, the thing is, you know them and you work with them in mind. For instance, I know that my left hand is weaker than the right one -- so I work with that in mind.

The aim should be that your gear is transparent to you, not the best there is.

John Camp,

There are lots of great abstract artists (even if you don't like abstract painting and sculpture -- your loss). Music is an abstract art form. Beethoven was an abstract artist. So was Miles Davis. And, with the notable exception of Guernica, most of Picasso's art was formalist in nature -- it had nothing to "say".

Hugh -- Perhaps I should have said "natural" light.

Yeah, you right. As if you ask a good cook preparing excellent meal what brand of pot he used for cooking it.

This discussion of lighting costs brings up another aspect of the gear issue.

I'm sure I'm largely paraphrasing MJ here, but one reason pro-level equipment costs so much is that it has to be built to perform well under constant use and abuse, and come with good solutions when it doesn't. Generally, these are expensive qualities to provide (and to be really useful, are provided across a system of gear).

This is one reason why so much top-shelf photographic gear can be had for cheap. This stuff was made well enough (and made maintainable enough) that it outlived working lives, owners, technology advances, support systems or just professional viability. Combined with the fact that the fundamentals of optical imaging haven't changed, this means that a lot of premium photographic equipment is now really nice ebay junk. For a time, much amateur stuff got the superb craftsmanship, too.

Without the daily grind and risk or extensive system compatibility to consider, amateurs have the luxury of focusing more on features, which is how gear is marketed to them. But amateurs also have the luxury of shopping a large supply of essentially surplus top-notch photography gear.

Hear, hear. Always amuses me that so many people seem to think that the camera is the "magic bullet" that makes a great photograph, and forget that maybe it's the button-presser behind it that's the critical factor.

A Leica will not automatically make you Cartier-Bresson--as I know from bitter experience.

Guess the trick is, as someone said, to keep shooting, and shoot a lot.

@David: More people these days have a few thousand dollars to spare than a few hundred hours (though it's fewer today than three years ago). Especially now that the Internet seems to be eating spare time like the Cookie Monster eats cookies.

For certain kinds of photography. Pointing and shooting with the best available camera is the technique.

Examples include shooting wild life and sports.

Nothing wrong with Machine Gun photography.

Gosh Fred, if only I'd known better, I wouldn't have made this photo with my Leica, nor this photo with my Leica, and certainly not this one.

But then, I'm a rangefinder girl, not boy, so perhaps old rules no longer apply. ;^)

This discussion reminds me of something that Joe Breidel, my Critical Studies professor at MCAD, once said to me, "The work will figure itself out, if you do it long enough and pay attention to what it's telling you." How much work is that? Well, ask the work; sometimes it'll be a lot, sometimes it'll be a little. But you won't know until you've done it.

I think the same goes for finding what techniques work for what projects.

In general, I'm not a fan of machine gun hunting; I get lost in all that editing. I prefer bowhunting, so to speak.

From behind the pale shadow of Artemis,

PS: It Ain't What You Got, It's What You Do With it.

That "Natural light" stuff is too expensive when you have a crew and some models standing around all day waiting for the 20 minutes of good light.

"As if you ask a good cook preparing excellent meal what brand of pot he used for cooking it."

Maybe so, but get professional chefs talking about knives and they just won't stop unless it's to talk about stoves or tattoos.

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