Does A New Camera Equal Better Experiences and Photographs?

Schweitzer Mountain Resort, Sandpoint, Idaho, Nikon D7200, 50mm f1.8, ISO 100, 1/1000

I’m currently considering buying a new full frame mirrorless camera. Because of the expense involved, there is naturally a lot of thought going into my decision including a nauseating amount of research and the associated technical comparisons. I’ve finally got it narrowed down to two or three options but the lingering question for me is this, “Will having a “better” camera with more technology actually change my experiences, make me a better photographer and consequently result in better photographs?”.

I’m not typically the kind of guy who buys the latest and greatest of anything simply because I feel the need to stay current. I held onto my flip phone until it died and my wife forced me to get an iPhone 4 so she could actually text me. I typically drive my vehicles for more than ten years and have no problem looking at 150,000 miles as the benchmark for when I start to think about getting something else. I’ve been wearing the same Suunto Vector watch for more than fifteen years and as beaten up and worn looking as it is, it still reliably let’s me know what time it is, the barometric pressure and what altitude I’m playing at! Newness doesn’t matter much to me, but dependable functionality reigns supreme in my world. I know that’s not sexy, but it’s the way I roll.

When I went to Nepal, Bangladesh and India a few years ago I took my old and trusty Nikon D90, a couple of good prime lenses and a handful of memory cards. In today’s measure, that “archaic” 12 MP crop sensor dinosaur would have a hard time competing with the technology of a middle of the road cell phone’s photographic capabilities. Regardless of the fact that that little camera had already traveled with me to lots and lots of countries, been beaten up in the backcountry for years here in Colorado, dropped a few times and been dried out after snowstorms on our kitchen counter many, many times, it was a reliable piece of kit and I never hesitated once to take it with me. I was never easy on it, but it never let me down and helped me capture some of the best experiences of my life.

A couple of years ago I sold the D90 and bought a new camera with twice the megapixels, faster processor, better sensor, faster continuous shooting capabilities and all the things Nikon promised would make me a better photographer. I mostly justified the purchase at the time because I’d literally put those benchmark 150,000 miles on it and it was maybe finally time to move on. The new camera has been fantastic and held up under some rowdy treatment including some rough crashes on backcountry ski days and some rather nasty weather duty, so so far so good. To my delight, I know for sure the D90 is still being used and still delivering a reliable experience to the new owner.

Have my photos gotten better with this new camera?  I personally think so, but I also believe a lot of that is my continuing development as a photographer. Getting the new camera re-stoked that creative fire in me and I’ve spent more and more time learning the craft. Yes, in the photos I’ve subsequently blown up I can see a difference those extra megapixels make, but are my compositions better? Yeah, probably, but again, that’s simply a function of ME getting better, not the camera.

This morning on the commute down to my office, I wondered to myself if having my current camera, or the even more expensive camera I’m considering would’ve made my past travels and experiences different or “better”. The short answer is I really don’t think so.

I travel around and play hard in the mountains solely for the experience of living the fullest life I possibly can. The photos I take are a byproduct of those experiences and sometimes I’m fortunate enough to sell some of them. Having a different camera with more technology may give me sharper images and the ability to print larger formats, but I highly doubt having another camera would’ve changed a single thing about the experiences themselves. Chasing the experience puts me there, not having a better camera.

I’m a firm believer that a better photograph is simply a function of the quality of glass you put in front of the camera and the creativity of the person standing behind it, not necessarily the technology inside that little box. Ansel Adams did pretty well for himself with a fraction of the technology we have today, right?

Yeah, I’ll probably add the new camera to my fleet, but I know in my heart it won’t change the way I see life.

Climb high, ski fast, live simply.

Advertisements

Challenging Myself to Get Better

Transitioning back to ski mode after a long climb.

Later this year I’ll be returning to the Himalaya, this time to join a handful of professional photographers where we’ll spend three weeks photographing the cultural treasures and mind blowing landscapes of northwestern Nepal.  Having been to this region before, it’s hard to overstate my excitement to be returning to such a physically demanding and sensorially overwhelming part of the world.

I consider myself a semiprofessional/avid hobbyist photographer where I sometimes sell my work to individuals or publications, but my primary income isn’t from photography. More than that though, I truly love the art of photography and I’m constantly striving to learn and expand my skills. I know traveling with a group of professional photographers from all over the world will be a treasure trove of information, and I honestly can’t wait to immerse myself in it, but it also brings a certain level of pressure, real or perceived.

Much of our trip will be trekking at altitudes well above 4,400 metres (about 14,000 feet) with a couple of days over 5,500 metres (18,000 feet) and I think it’s safe to say the physical demands of this trip will be a given. Partner that with frenetic markets, language challenges and every other challenge that comes with international travel and the idea of trying to be “creative” all of a sudden becomes a little more daunting.

There is no way to eliminate all the physical and cultural challenges, but what I can control is my proficiency with the tools of the trade. I’m pretty comfortable with my camera and it’s controls, but in the time I have leading up to my trip, I’ve dedicated myself to reviewing the basics, gaining efficiency with functions I don’t use as often and digging into some of the things I’ve never used but always thought would be helpful. When I step off the plane in Kathmandu I want my camera to be something I know so well that whenever creative photo opportunities arise, I’ll need to spend a minimal amount of time faffing around trying to figure out how to make it do what my creative mind wants.

To help start getting myself used to more stressful shooting situations, I decided to give myself a little “pop quiz” in adversity during a photo assignment. I wanted to stress myself physically while simultaneously putting pressure on myself to cover all the photo basics necessary to make a competent photograph.  In other words, I wanted to see if my procedures for composing and capturing a photo were second nature enough to where I could do it instinctually and not have to think too much.

This was my challenge:

  • I would go to my local ski area well before sunrise and climb up to an observation point high on the continental divide. I wouldn’t be allowed to stop other than to adjust the risers on my bindings for the steeper parts of the climb. The point was to make sure I was physically “stressed” when I arrived.
  • I would “reset” my entire camera to the default settings in order to force myself to think about every single step in making a photograph.
  • I could meter in aperture mode but had to shoot in manual mode.
  • I had to hand hold the shot.
  • I had to shoot using f1.4 and compose to maximize the bokeh effect
  • I could use no flash even though it would be extremely low light (partly why I chose f1.4)
  • I would have a five-minute time limit to compose a photo, get my camera settings done and make the photograph…and only take one shot (complete pass or fail).
  • Finally, I had exactly one hour to complete the whole challenge…car door to car door.

I’m a pretty strong climber on skis, but I’m certainly no hyper speed randonee racer, therefore I knew I had to push the pace a little going up, but I also knew going too fast would redline my heart rate given I was already starting at about 3,350 metres (11,100 feet) to begin with!

In short, I was able to climb to Ptarmigan Roost in about forty minutes. It took me a few more minutes to get situated, get a sip of water, strip the skins off my skis and make sure nothing would blow away since it was super windy. After that, I started the clock on my five minute “photo” allowance.

I found a composition I liked fairly quickly, but because I was physically stressed and cold, I really had to stop and think through each part of my camera settings a little more carefully, which took time. Once I had the settings where I wanted, I quickly retraced each step since I only had one chance to get a “good” photograph, then I hit the button.

I barely looked at the screen on my camera to see if I got anything worthwhile because remember, I still had to ski back down to meet the one-hour time limit. I quickly (but carefully!) crammed my camera back in my pack, glanced at my watch and saw that I had about 6-7 minutes remaining. I hurriedly clicked into my skis and let it rip. When I hit unlock on my car’s key fob, I still had three minutes remaining.

The photo I took? Well, I was pretty happy given the circumstances.

 

 

Maybe these challenges are silly, but it truly helps put me in situations where I’m not 100% comfortable and forces to me to fall back and reaffirm my knowledge of the basic skills.

Climb high, ski fast, pedal hard, live simply.

 

Competitive Art? I’m Not Really a Fan.

I’m not a competitive person at all, never have been really. I played organized sports back when I was in school, but to be completely honest, I liked the training processes more than the competition itself. Of all the sports I participated in back in the day, individual type activities like track and field best suited my personality.

Since then, my pursuits have been oriented to those more individual type endeavours. I’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed a long career of backcountry skiing, mountain biking, climbing and trail running, and to this day I get far more out of a day when I can just go out and have fun and not feel like I need to measure myself against others.

I also typically take my trusty camera along with me to the backcountry. Beyond the obvious photo opportunity reasons, it tends to slow me down, forces me to look more closely at my surroundings and keeps me completely tied to the present. Most importantly though, it’s my creative outlet of choice.

I’ve always considered photography a form of art, but in the past several years I think I’ve come to appreciate photography as an art form. Instead of simply looking at a photograph for only the visual aspects, I try to imagine why a photographer paused to take a photo in the first place. Why did they feel the need to capture it? Was it something truly personal or just something to make money?  Maybe what’s in the frame is less important than what’s NOT in the frame, and what could that something be?

Because I strongly believe that art is truly a creative reflection of the artists themselves, I’ve never really been fond of art “competitions”, but then again, I’m not competitive. Art is 100% subjective at its core, so how can there really be a universal measure of what is good or bad, right or wrong? Some of the most iconic photographs ever taken have not adhered to the rule of thirds, had balanced light, had perfect bokeh, etc., yet they’ve managed to capture an immeasurable or esoteric quality that rendered them universally appealing. How do you measure that? Of course this very subject is covered extensively in one of my favourite books titled “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig.  

We are all unique individuals with our own unique experiences and perspectives in life. Similarly, we are also unique in our way of interpreting art. There is no right or wrong, good or bad, winner or loser, only individual interpretation.

When I really stop and think about it, art is the most basic form of self-expression and maybe even a creative manifestation of the photographer’s entire life. Art is art. Wouldn’t it be nicer for everyone if there were a little less competition and a lot more simple appreciation of it?