Photography 101: Focusing on Equipment Instead of Technique

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

I wrote a recent blog post outlining some of the challenges an ageing photographer faces and how technology has come to the rescue for me. You can see that post here. As part of my ongoing education I watch a lot of YouTube videos about photography because you’re never too old to learn something new. I mostly watch videos dealing with gear reviews, shooting technique or post-processing technique. However, occasionally I will watch a photography workshop conducted by a pro in the field (you know like an African safari workshop for rich people). So where am I headed with this?

After singing the praises of technological advances in photography (as explained in the post referenced above) I am now going to rotate 180° to what I see as absolute folly. Some people just have way too much money for their own good. This was brought home to me, once again, by watching a video of a workshop filmed in the Grand Teton Mountains by a professional wildlife and nature photographer (I am intentionally not including a link to that video because it’s just embarrassing). I am neither rich or famous so I have the rather elitist attitude of a chronically poor person (well maybe not poor but certainly not rich).

Back to the workshop in question. I know this is going to sound really pretentious, arrogant and petty on my part but what the heck. Let me add one caveat before I continue: I spent thirty years as a banking professional with the largest bank in the USA catering to the rich and famous (and of course regular folks too). Celebrity and wealth do not impress me much. A good heart, hard work and competence impresses me a lot more. In this video you see a group of wealthy folks, with thousands upon thousands of dollars of photography equipment, dressed to the nines (as we used to say) tramping in the fields below the Grand Teton Mountains listening to the guru pro photographer.

I’m estimating that the workshop probably cost somewhere in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. More exotic photography workshops in Africa, Antarctica or India can easily run $15,000 to $20,000 (and that doesn’t include international airfare). The poor woman singled out of the group was probably in her mid-thirties and had the privileged look of a trophy wife (a petty judgemental description on my part). She had a huge Nikon D4s camera, predecessor to the Nikon D5 (roughly equal to Canon’s 1Dx or 1Dx Mark II), and a monster lens that looked like a 500mm f/4. The camera body cost about $6,000 purchased new and the lens would have been $10,000 at least.

She was dressed in brand new camo clothing (which I would swear had never been worn), every hair was in place and she had on full makeup. The other members of the group were similarly equipped and dressed. They were all handholding these monster rigs and (as I said before) tramping through the grass trying to shoot moose and pronghorns. All the while the pro wildlife photographer was pontificating and basically taking their pictures for them (adjusting their cameras for them using his settings). They will return home en masse to share the photos they had very little involvement in taking.

It’s analogous to a big game hunter shooting a prize lion, bear or tiger and then letting the paying client take credit for it (I don’t approve of big game hunting BTW and I don’t approve of professional photographers taking the client’s pictures for them so they can take credit for them later). It’s harder and harder these days to make money with photography but this just reeks of unethical behaviour to me. A workshop leader should teach and not do. There are also workshop leaders who will collect $3,000 to $20,000 per person and then continue to take their own photos for commercial gain. This is becoming a bit of a rant isn’t it?

Back to the young lady in question. The leader asked her, on camera, about her histogram. She didn’t have a clue about what he was talking about. I certainly don’t expect a newbie photographer to know a lot about histograms—but what in the devil are they doing with almost $20,000 of pro-level photography equipment hanging from their neck? Yes, can you imagine lugging around a rig like that suspended from a neck strap? I saw it. Instead of investing in all that technology, clothing and one-on-one time with a pro she should have educated herself. Technology is great, I love it, but it does not replace education (and I’m not talking about high-priced photography schools).

If you want to be a photographer, a serious photographer and not simply a cellphone shooter, then make the effort to learn the craft. Just buying expensive equipment, clothes and workshops will not do it for you. Just because you have the money doesn’t mean that you should spend it on pro-level equipment you will never know how to use. The Nikon D5 and Canon 1Dx Mark II are pro-level flagships costing $6,000 to $7,000 for the camera body alone. I’m a professional photographer who can both afford and use a camera of that caliber and I choose not to. For the price of one flagship camera body I can buy two lesser pro-level cameras like the Canon 5D Mark IV and 7D Mark II.

A flagship camera will not automatically make you a professional photographer any more than a fully tricked out Corvette would make me a professional Grand Prix racer (although I wouldn’t mind having one). Buy the best equipment you can afford (and use) but don’t buy it to just make a fashion or ego statement. You will end up looking like the rich entitled fool that you are. When I meet someone who introduces themselves as a professional photographer (usually a very young person with a consumer level camera) the first thing I ask is: where can I see samples of your work? Photography is a great hobby but a very demanding profession. Pursue it realistically. Sorry for the rant.

An addendum: This post is not a slam against professional photographers, workshops or rich people in particular. I know many photographers of different skill levels and as a group they’re great folks. Many, probably most, workshops are on the up & up and run professionally. However, I think in most instances they are grossly overpriced for what you are getting (they strike me more as all-inclusive travel excursions with photography thrown in as an extra). My apologies if I’ve offended anyone with this post (rant) but I love photography and what its done for me. If you’re an enthusiast maybe you should watch a few in-the-field workshops on YouTube—don’t be one those photographers. 

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