THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHY TOOLS
There is certainly no shortage of equipment you can purchase for photography. The market is so heavily saturated with cameras, lenses and related accessories, that it's hard to keep track of it all. Take a break from the photographic magazines and news sites for a few months and you almost feel out of touch.
While keeping abreast of the latest technologies certainly can't harm, it's very easy to be caught up in the hype of it all. Camera and equipment manufacturers are in the business to make money. They need to sell you their gear and do so by making you feel your current camera just isn't up to the task anymore. While they don't say this directly, it's the science of marketing that makes the latest product appear so much better and that everything coming before it is obsolete.
With this constant bombardment, people can quickly become gear obsessed. They just have to have the latest version of a lens or the newest camera body. Look how people are with iPhones. They end up being fashion accessories and status symbols, even queuing in wind, rain or snow to be one of the first to get their hands on one. The reality is the users often don't end up doing anything different with their new phone than they did with the previous. It's ultimately just to say "Yeah baby, I have an iPhone 6!"
For those who are a bit more savvy or have managed to resist temptation, they can see past this allure and concentrate on far more important tools. These of course are the ones you develop yourself and refine over time. Throughout my guides and articles you'll hear me chime on about the camera being just a tool and secondary to the significance of the person using it. The same is no less true here.
Of course, every photographer needs to know the basics of camera operation to capture an image correctly, or how they intend to. Anyone starting out should focus their attention upon the camera, getting to know its features and how to change them. However, once you are technically proficient with the camera, that is where the emphasis needs to end and the responsibility for the resulting images fall upon you as the photographer. We need to develop and grow our own tools which include :
The ability to problem solve - If elements in the photograph are too bright, too dark, out of focus, unwanted in the scene or not creating the result we desire, we need to know how to correct these issues.
The ability to see light - It may sound blatantly obvious but, so often we end up just observing our subject matter and not how the light is interacting with them. What we see through the viewfinder frequently does not match what we see on the LCD screen. It's very easy to get hot-spots or lose details to shadow because of this, as well as get ugly lighting.
The ability to manipulate or adapt to light - This ties in with the ability to problem solve but also goes beyond it. If shooting outside with nothing other than the camera, we have no control over the sunlight or artificial sources like street lamps, etc. What we have to do is adapt to it by either finding shade, or position our subjects and ourselves correctly, depending on the time of day and even time of year. If we have reflectors, screens and flashes at our disposal, then we and manipulate the Sun to our advantage.
The ability to see the shot - Perhaps the hardest tool to develop is the ability to see the shot in our minds. Casting our eye across a scene and envisaging our subject in it, in certain attire, in a particular pose and lighting in a dynamic fashion. Knowing exactly what you want before you raise the camera to your eye. You may be somewhere at noon but can imagine what it will be like at sunset or even night time. It's all in the attention to details and using your imagination.
The ability to introduce artistic flair - This can also be a difficult tool to develop. We all have creative potential but the challenge is in releasing and channeling of it. Often our self-consciousness and confidence will limit us. We don't want to try certain things because people are looking or we'd feel stupid doing something.
The ability to interact with our subject and the world around us - This comes down to confidence and interpersonal skills. If you have an inexperienced model or just regular Joe Public, they don't know how to pose and emote. Often they either stand there with an awkward smile or look like a deer caught in headlights. Being able to give clear instructions, relax your subject and coax an expression and pose from them is often more important in a portrait than anything else.
The charming young lady in the photo, had absolutely zero modeling experience. I could have shot her against a plain white backdrop for simplicity. She could have sat there looking like a deer in the headlights and the resulting photographs would have been dire, no matter how many shots I took, what camera brand or lens I had fitted or lighting. Instead I opted to create a scene.
I hung a fleur-de-lis fabric in the background. I erected lightstands either side and a cross brace above her. I placed a length of velvet material I bought for a few pounds off ebay, on the bar to look like a curtain. I got her interacting with that fabric as though she was stepping out from behind it. I dressed her in a costume I again got from ebay. I coaxed a pose and expression from her paying attention to not only her face but body language too, as this communicates a great deal. I then lit her and the scene to create atmosphere. Absolutely none of that was to do with the camera. I just used that to take a photo. The important thing was that I made the photo prior to touching the camera!
Whether you have a somewhat dated Nikon D40 with a kit lens or a brand spanking new D4s with a 70-200 f/2.8 in your hand, they will essentially take the same picture. A £6000 camera and lens combo will not make an iota of difference in the above. Not one. It's as capable of taking a crappy photo as an antiquated £60 camera. The only thing that can make a difference is you, the user.
If you're currently thinking you need to spend more money on your gear because you feel its limiting you, be honest with yourself and look clinically at your work. Are there exposure issues? Is the lighting lackluster? Is the pose and expression bland or disingenuous? Is the background distracting? If the answer to any of the above is "yes"- be aware that spending money on more expensive gear will not solve them. Try applying different techniques and being more analytical of what you are doing with your current equipment, before you go an buy more.
For example, If you have started doing a lot of low light photography, you might think to yourself "I need a full frame camera, because of the ISO abilities". Yes, full frame cameras do indeed have better low light performance but, rather than spend £2k on a new camera body, how about using a tripod or a stool to stabilize the camera and fire it using the timer? Have you thought about introducing a lamp or using a torch as an additional light source? Of course this won't solve all issues caused by low light but, you can appreciate the underlying point. Technique and thinking about what you're doing often wins out over buying more expensive equipment.
Likewise, spending hundreds of pounds on a flash and wireless trigger system for outdoor portraits, when simply positioning your subject in a better location or facing them away from or out of the harsh Sun, results in more attractive lighting. The cost of that? Absolutely nothing. The best tool in photography bar none, is the one between your ears. Think about what you are doing. Take your time. Look and actually see the scene. These are all things we can do without spending a penny and yet are overwhelmingly more effective to the outcome of a photograph, than a new camera, lens or accessory.