News and Views from Dave Wilson

It’s Not The Kit That Counts (most of the time)

by on Apr.09, 2011, under Photography

How often are you told,on showing someone a particularly good picture you’ve taken, that you must have a great camera? I always think that this is somewhat similar to telling a great author that they must have a very high-end word processor! I’m a great believer in the adage that your actual photography equipment is nothing like as important as what you do with it. A consumer grade DSLR and kit lens can be used to take superb images (as can an iPhone, a Holga, a cheap point-and-shoot or whatever “low-end” camera you care to substitute). The issue is not how much the equipment cost but your artistic vision and your ability to use the equipment, limitations and all, to achieve the result you are aiming for.

For 95% of my photography, the camera is essentially irrelevant. I’m either shooting outdoors in good light or have the camera on a tripod where shutter speed is unimportant. I’m also normally shooting for online use and, even when I do print images, I seldom do sizes above 20″x16″ and normally stick around 12″x18″ unless I have pictures to produce for a show. As a result, the lens quality is typically not an issue. You don’t need a $2000 lens if your main aim is to produce 8″x12″ prints or low resolution images for the web.

Given this, the question that comes to many people’s mind is why bother upgrading to an expensive camera system if a cheap one will do a great job? The answer to this question, for me, is that an expensive camera and lens combination opens up new vistas of photography that would otherwise be completely closed to me. It allows me to stretch my photography into new and interesting areas, notably sport and low light photography.

A great example of this was my recent experience of shooting at the Austin Rodeo. I was fortunate enough to gain press access to the event one evening to shoot inside the arena during the show. The lighting was absolutely awful (if you think a floodlit football stadium at night is problematic, imagine yourself with 2 stops less light than that) but I had to use as high a shutter speed as possible to try to freeze the action. Typically, this will mean using a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second or thereabouts but there was no way this could happen. In the end, I shot most of the evening at 1/500th, f/2.8 and ISO 4000. The last two numbers are the critical ones. To get something close to a decent shutter speed, I had to use a very fast (and, hence, expensive) lens with a wide aperture and also crank my sensitivity up to a ridiculously high value.

Had I not had the D700, I would have been stuck. My D90 will shoot acceptable images up to about 2500ISO but 4000ISO wouldn’t be usable. At 2500ISO, my shutter speed with the expensive glass would have been about 1/250th or so leading to a significantly blurrier image for most of the action shots. Had I been using a kit lens at f/5.6 (at the long end, the D90 kit lens is a 105mm f/5.6) I would have been looking at 1/60th, definitely not something that would have yielded anything other than “creative blur” for most of the evening.

As with many cases, the expensive equipment comes into its own in the “corner cases”, situations that most people never encounter and that cheaper equipment is just not designed to handle. You are paying for a reduced set of limitations rather than better pictures in normal use unless your definition of “normal use” involves a lot of low light sport shooting. The more expensive camera can handle a wider range of lighting situations and still expose a shot properly but, regardless, it’s still up to you to know the capabilities and limitations of the equipment and work within those limits to compose and shoot that great picture.


Hanging on For Dear Life, Austin Rodeo

Bull Rider, Rodeo Austin

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