Buy Something Nice

South Korea Travel Photography

I shot a wedding in Canada last weekend and ran into a very nice young fellow who was somewhat familiar with my work. As a photography enthusiast himself this young fellow was quite interested in the gear I shoot with and we got to talking about equipment. This young fellow has himself a very nice digital SLR, an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens and a 50mm f/1.8 prime. He asked me what he should buy next. I told him he should buy a plane ticket.

He thought I was kidding at first. It took some convincing for him to realize that I wasn’t.

I get this question often and I usually offer some variation of the response above. You can always buy new gear; new stuff comes on the market every single day. None of it alone makes you a better photographer. For that, you need experience. For that, you need to go somewhere and see something. What you put in front of your lens is more important than the lens you put in front of your face.

This holds true for any photography enthusiast but is exceptionally true when it comes to amateurs. Many amateurs – or folks just getting into photography – don’t know what they like to shoot. Most like to shoot a little bit of everything. A little macro here, some portraits there, a landscape or two for good measure and they’re having fun. With a digital SLR body, a kit lens and one quick prime to shoot in low light you have more than enough photographic firepower at your disposal to craft stunning images – just like the guy I met at the wedding. How do you know you should buy something new? How do you know you’ll use it a month from now?

Only when you start to refine your craft should you look at expanding your kit. If you outgrow the kit lens and the prime and want to start shooting portraits with razor-thin depth of field, you might start looking at an 85mm f/1.4 prime lens. If you get into sports and want to capture action the way you see it then perhaps you should break the bank on a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. Say you find that travel photography is your passion – a wide and fast 16-35mm f/2.8 might have to go on your Christmas wish list. But if you are a budding photographer just starting to get your feet wet? Spend your hard-earned money on a trip to an exotic destination and shoot with what you’ve got. I don’t know of a better way to find out exactly what it is you want to shoot. You certainly can’t do that browsing the goods at Best Buy.

I meet a lot of photographers with very extensive kits and very weak portfolios. I knew photographers in South Korea who couldn’t go on vacation during the summer because they had spent all of their money on new camera equipment. What good does that do you? I’d rather ride off into a Mongolian sunset with a point-and-shoot compact in my pocket than sit on the sofa brushing the dust off my new $3,500 lens. Pack what you’ve already got and go somewhere you’ve never been.

Buy more experience.

In 2008 I went on my first serious photography tour with my friend Len. Len and I had been into the photography game for about six months and we had comparable kits; consumer DSLRs, kit lenses, one fast prime and a crummy super zoom (that I still have and curse at from time to time). A few weeks prior to booking the trip I remember going to our local camera shop and thinking that I could buy a new lens – I had my eye on a nifty 70-200mm f/2.8 beauty at the time – and cut short the trip by a week or go full bore on this photographic odyssey. In the end common sense won out; Len challenged me to try and earn enough money by selling images taken on our trip to buy the big lens later.

I’m glad I didn’t buy that lens that day. I didn’t know enough about the equipment I did have to warrant purchasing something new. I wasn’t good enough at the time to see any benefit from something new. That lens would have been just one more thing to carry around with me. So, I went to work on honing my craft and getting more out of the equipment I already had at my disposal. I became a better photographer by studying and shooting and experiencing – I upgraded my skillset and not my gear. Since then I’ve spent a lot of time buying experiences and not much time at all buying equipment. I never did go back to buy that 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. I found out I didn’t really need it after all.

Consider this; while the allure of new gear is undeniably strong, the lure of the road, once you’ve been out on it, is stronger. Spend more time as a photographer and less as a consumer and you’ll be better for it.

So, to my new friend in Canada; I hope that answers your question. See you on the road.