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.

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.

 

Liberating Crabs

One of my favourite books of all time is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. If you haven’t read it, it’s a fantastic book about the metaphysics of quality. I think what resonates most with me is Mr. Pirsig’s discussion of how people learn and why some people excel and some will struggle with conventional education methods. Reflecting on my own education (formal and “life” education), I clearly see how and why I do better at some things and struggle with others.

I’m definitely an experiential learner. Instead of someone just telling me something is fact and accepting it as such, I prefer chasing things down random paths to see where it’ll take me. Maybe that’s my curious nature, but I personally feel like I need to do that so I’ll have a complete understanding of the situation. I even refuse to use that driving app thing (Siri?) because I need to look at a real map and feel like I have a relational connection to where I am. I may take a wrong street every now and again, but that also helps me learn for future reference.

An artist friend of mine turned me on to another great book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. The book is a discussion of how our society doesn’t nurture creative thinking, but instead migrates toward conformity. In one example, he equates the creative process to crabs in a bucket. If you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket, it’s more than likely one or two could easily get out. However, before they can liberate themselves, the others will inevitably pull the non-conformists back in. Same with creatives. If someone thinks outside the norms, maybe doesn’t adhere to the Rule of Thirds in a photograph for instance, it makes the majority all twitchy and they will do their best to drag them back into conformity. This says more about the insecurities of those pulling the creatives back in than it does about the creatives themselves, right?

I follow a couple of photographers on YouTube and noticed they’ll sometimes set up their tripod in a crowded place and start shooting. I have to admit the thought of that makes my skin crawl. All I can see are those armchair experts (crabs) coming over to give their two cents on composition, lighting or whatever.

I’m pretty confident overall with my skill and vision, but there again, I need my clear, unfettered space to think through things in my own way, wander around aimlessly when necessary, make mistakes and grow my understanding of things without the distraction of crabs trying to pull me back in the bucket. I already think my creative time and space is extremely limited so having that time altered tends to make me less than happy.

Yesterday saw some impressive storm clouds building to the west so I decided to go out to shoot a couple of compositions I’d spotted over the past couple of weeks. This was unfortunately near a well-used hiking and biking trail. Before I could talk myself out of it though, I loaded up my camera backpack, jumped on my mountain bike and headed over to the mountain parks adjacent to my house.

Naturally, at the very place I wanted to set up, I noticed a few trail runners, mountain bikers and hikers in the area. I hesitated for a second, thinking I’d come back another time, but got to setting up my tripod and went about my business of composing the shot I wanted. Fortunately, nobody stopped for anything longer than to reiterate what a beautiful day it was. I have to admit, once I got going in my thought processes, I didn’t even notice any additional people who may have come by.

I admittedly made a couple of silly mistakes using some new gear I’d just acquired, but I stayed the course while sorting out the whys and why nots of what was happening and eventually got what I wanted. With that said, the next time out I’m confident I’ll be better for learning the way I do best, even in a crab bucket.

Climb high. Ski fast. Pedal far. Live simply.