How serious do you want to get?

At some point, every enthusiast photographer is going to want an upgrade. It’s a natural consequence of human society; more and newer is better. Since money doesn’t necessarily correlate to ability – in fact, it’s frequently the complete opposite situation – the people who’ve bought the best and latest gear generally aren’t the best photographers. In fact, I think a solid argument can be made that if you are very committed and passionate about your hobby, then you’ll find ways to make do without resorting to technology.

Advance warning: this article is as much about individual soul searching as it is about gear lust. Many of you will probably disagree with what I have to say, or find the truths a little uncomfortable; you of course don’t have to listen to me, but you might well find doing so unburdens you and allows you to develop even more as a photographer. Why am I saying this? Because I went through the process myself, and have to make a conscious effort to stop myself from falling into the gear trap. (It’s actually a lot worse when you’re a pro because you can justify buying anything as ‘work related’ and a tax-deductible expense.)

Notice the question I asked was ‘how serious do you want to get?’ not ‘how serious are you?’. There’s a difference: the former is aspirational, and the latter is slightly insulting, specifically in the implied stagnation and doubt of one’s ability.

Rule Number One: don’t confuse need and want.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting something. It’s what makes us human, in many ways. But don’t think you need it. Having a D800 will not make you a better photographer than D700. In fact, it might well make your images worse if you lack the discipline to use it properly. But if you desire one, and that’s all there is to it, then go ahead. If the ownership experiences gives you pleasure, and you’re happy carrying the weight around, then who’s going to stop you? These types of purchases tend to be accompanied by positive personal emotions.

Need is different: you’re going to find it difficult to do product photography without lighting gear. That’s a need, if the situation calls for it. I wouldn’t argue any other way. These types of purchases often feel like paying tax: we do it because we have to, not because we want to.

This brings me on to Rule Number Two: only buy something if you know you’ve exhausted the limits of your equipment.

There are so many advantages here: you’ll buy exactly what you need. You won’t waste money on trying things that ‘might’ be useful. You will actively seek the skillset required to make the most of the new acquisition.

Rule Number Three: learn to use what you’ve got. This one is a biggie. The number of people who keep buying bigger and faster lenses and cameras thinking that it’s going to solve basic compositional problems never ceases to amaze me. Fps and bokeh are tools and enablers, not a crutch for compositional imbalance! Yes, the ‘Photoshop tax’ is painful, but if you think about it, not unreasonable. I use photoshop for every single image I shoot. There is no other piece of equipment that falls into this category, yet some of the other tools I own cost far more. How is this unreasonable? I look at it as cheaper than having a darkroom, or paying somebody to develop films for you. Furthermore, signing up for a decent course or educational program is going to cost less than a new camera, but teach you far, far more. Buying a professional camera without understanding photography is like driving a Ferrari with traction control off in the rain: you can go fast, kinda wing it, probably hold it together most of the time, but sooner or later, you’re going to crash in a big, messy way.

This brings us around full circle. I don’t define seriousness in photography as whether you make your living from it or not; there are plenty of ‘pros’ who make big money but don’t really care about the output – so long as it’s about 90% there, the clients can’t tell the difference. Even more shockingly, I was told this in person, by more than one person whose fees are rather high. Similarly, there are amateurs who are outstandingly good photographers – probably without the commercial inclination or personal interest in making a living out of it – but their shooting discipline and workflow shows incredible attention to detail, even though very few people (if any) see their images.

Rather, seriousness is probably closer to how much of a sacrifice you’re willing to make; this comes in many forms. Cost. Weight of equipment. Time spent processing, which could be spent on other things. Sleep sacrificed for that perfect sunrise or sunset. Personal security, to get the shot in a dangerous area. Photographers who try to capture things they cannot control – think photojournalists and wildlife shooters – rank pretty darn high on the seriousness ladder.

I think it’s very important to know where this boundary lies personally. Like every other wildlife photographer, I once had aspirations to shoot for National Geographic; the reality is that after a bit more research into what they do while on assignment; I don’t think I’d be happy with that kind of life; sacrifices are high. But on the opposite side of the coin, I’m willing to put up with PC lenses, tripods, focusing racks etc. in order to eke out a tiny bit more image quality for my watch photography – which I don’t think many people would bother with.

Perhaps another definition of the spectrum is whether you’d go out of your way to get the shot or not: a serious photographer would either go far, far out of their way and plan specifically to get that one image; a not-serious one would be more opportunistic and just make causal images as and when the opportunity arises.

Knowing where you stand on this continuum  – enables you to make decisions without that slight discomfort and doubt that you’re compromising on other things at the expense of photography – but without really knowing why. It’s a lot easier to be happy about the choice to carry 20kg of equipment on holiday because you know that you aim to get some very specific shots that can only be done with that equipment; as opposed to bringing-it-along-because-you-bought-all-of-it-already-because-it-made-you-look-like-a-pro-and-now-you-should-probably-use-it. Similarly, you won’t feel bad about missing that amazing sunset your 20kg-toting friend got because he woke up at 5am, and you were hungover after partying the night before – but you know how to make a decent shot with your mirrorless camera when the opportunity arises, even if you don’t actively go out of your way to look for it.

That liberation brings happiness and contentment. Very simply, that makes it a hell of a lot easier to enjoy what you do; the fact that you’re here and reading means you’ve got a choice. And given that choice, would you want to do anything for any other reason? MT

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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