One thing: Taking stock of gear and when to let go or lean in: Digital Photography Review Leave a comment

If you’re not careful, it’s easy to get caught up in acquiring a lot of gear and chasing the next new shiny object. Rather than specs, what if we looked at our habits and what we enjoy photographing? Doing this might reveal what you really need to buy instead of what you think you want to buy.

Image credit: Shaminder Dulai

This isn’t a story about new gear. This isn’t a story about the latest shiny new camera with a breathless rundown of specs and features. This story will not convince you to go out and buy the trendy thing. No, this story will ask you to rethink how you think about new gear, and I will ask you not to look to others to decide what you should buy but to look inward to yourself.

One Thing: Advice, tips and tricks from the DPReview editors

About this series:
Our team cuts through the noise to share the things that made the biggest impact on our work and what lessons you can bring into your own work.

Read the entire series here.

I’ve been thinking about how and why we buy and upgrade gear. It’s easy to get caught up in chasing the next shiny object, and before you know it, you’ve amassed a large cache of equipment, or worse, you’re the person who is always selling their gear to buy the next one and not actually using any of it. Recently, I’ve been hearing from many former colleagues in the photojournalism world with questions about global shutter and the Sony a9 III. (Before joining DPReview, I spent decades as a working photojournalist, photo editor and video producer.)

It may surprise you, but many professional photojournalists are still using DSLRs. So when a handful of people started to independently ask me if now was the moment to go mirrorless finally and if the a9 III was going to be the camera to trigger the change, it got me thinking about how often the professionals upgrade, what I learned to value and the lessons I learned the hard way.

“Instead of looking at what’s new or comparing yourself to what you don’t have, why not look at what you do have in a new light?”

Making a living from photography and video changes how you think about gear and the purchases you make (or have to convince your employer to make). In that world, getting new gear was a luxury that involved budget requests months to years in advance and a lot of begging and pleading. Or, during my freelance years, saving up for months or years. In that environment, you embrace the gear you have and learn how to squeeze out the most from it.

Need versus want

That scarcity teaches you the value of carefully considering what you ‘needed’ versus ‘wanted.’ During this time, I learned that what I ‘wanted’ may be the shiny new thing, but what I really ‘needed’ was an 50mm F1.8 workhorse to replace my aging 50mm F4.5.

You may have similar realizations as you embark on this exercise. Do you actually need a longer telephoto, or would you be better served by a 2x teleconverter? Your back and bank account will thank you.

A drone may seem appealing, but the better investment may be a monopod to help make more steady shots from the ground.

I’m just as guilty as the next fellow in getting excited about some shiny new gear and its whiz-bang new features that promise to change my visual life for the better. Case in point, when I was just a few years into working for daily newspapers, I had convinced myself that my photography was being held back by not having a wider angle lens. I had a 24-35mm lens but coveted an 11-24mm lens for some reason. I thought of all the fantastic images I could produce (and be hired to produce) if only I had this wider lens. A few years later, I finally got my hands on one and then proceeded to make some of my worst pictures.

It wasn’t the lens’s fault; it was my fault for thinking this gear would magically gel with me and make me better. The truth was, I should have invested in a faster 24-35mm (which I eventually did and still use today), but I was so enamored with the novelty of the 11mm that I forgot to ask if it was the right lens for the work I was doing (it was not).

This is a lesson I took some time to learn.

I’ve downsized over the years, and today, I can head out for 75% of assignments with items that fit in just one bag. Turns out I didn’t ‘need’ as much fancy gear as I once thought.

Image credit: Shaminder Dulai

Look at your kit with fresh eyes

It’s fun to look at new gear and debate what to buy next, but let’s not lose sight of the gear we already have by our side. Look at what you have with fresh eyes. Are there things you use often and might benefit from getting a newer version? Are there things everyone says you must have (e.g., a ring light) but don’t really jibe with your goals? Instead of looking at what’s new or comparing yourself to what you don’t have, why not look at what you do have in a new light?

“It’s fun to look at new gear and debate what to buy next, but let’s not lose sight of the gear we already have by our side.”

I am of the opinion that it’s not necessary to upgrade often, and only by running our current gear into the ground can we learn what we like, need or would enjoy using next. This experience guides us through experimenting, trial and error, and ultimately, it’s only when we hit a roadblock that we genuinely know what purchase will make the most positive impact on our photography. By gaining a better appreciation of what we have and considering what gives us joy and spurs us to get out there to make some images, we’ll discover the things that matter.

Three steps to better (photographic) living

With a nod to Marie Kondo, I propose we ask the most obvious question, “Does this give me joy?” And then, for good measure, I’ll tack on, “Does this motivate my creativity?”

I propose we shift our thinking on gear, invest in what helps drive your creativity and growth in photography, and don’t worry so much about having the latest gear. And then, let’s use this rubric to guide us in when and what to buy next. To help us get started, I suggest we look at all our gear and place everything into one of three categories: ‘stuff I don’t use,’ ‘stuff I use often,’ and ‘stuff I’d like to use.’

Stuff I don’t use

The tricky bit with this one is needing to be honest with yourself and asking if you are still using stuff you have. Over the years, I know I’ve accumulated gear that either didn’t deliver as promised, I never got around to using, or I’ve grown past needing it.

“Use the stuff; don’t just buy the stuff.”

It’s time to let this stuff go. As a bonus, while clearing up space, it’s also an excellent time to examine what you value in your photography and why you never used or outgrew part of your kit. This self-examination may reveal what you ‘need’ next.

Don’t just throw your old gear in the rubbish bin. Consider selling or donating your unused gear. If you think your gear can still fetch a pretty sum, it makes sense to sell your unused gear to help fund your next purchase. Or, bypass the hassle of selling and donate your unused gear to a younger photographer.

Used gear is how I got my chance to get my foot in the door, and it’s a great way to pass down your passion for photography to others. My first real usable professional camera was the Canon EOS-1D Mark II, donated to me by co-workers at a newspaper. That camera set me down my path and I’m still grateful over a decade later. The newsroom was upgrading staff to the ‘N,’ so it could have just as easily thrown away the older camera, but by gifting it to someone in need, it had a purpose for a few more years.

A donated Canon EOS-1D Mark II became my daily shooter for years, taking me coast to coast across the US on assignments ranging from sports to documentary projects. It had over 200K shutter actuations, an unreliable battery door, and I’m pretty sure it had spent time embedded in the Iraq War, but I loved it, and it helped me get started.

Stuff I use often

In our kits, there are workhorse items that we take for granted. A medium zoom kit lens isn’t ‘sexy’, but if we think about it, it’s where many of us started, and it’s a focal length still heavily used and practical for many uses. Instead of lusting after a very lovely 85mm F1.2 prime, how about upgrading your 18-35mm F4 zoom lens to a 16-35mm F2.8 zoom lens? Which would you get a lot more use out of?

“Do you actually need a longer telephoto, or would you be better served by a 2x teleconverter? Your back and bank account will thank you.”

You could start by looking at what you’re using. What have you worn out? What are the things you love that you currently own? Are better versions worth upgrading to? If you started with a DSLR, maybe it makes more sense to look at your most used DSLR lens and replace it with the better mirrorless version before chasing the halo products.

Stuff I’d like to use

As you move through this organization process, you’ll no doubt have a few items that you don’t use enough today but have always wanted to. For some stuck in an annual upgrade cycle, this could even mean your primary camera.

It’s time to do something with what you have. Use the stuff; don’t just buy the stuff.

Get out there and make some images. Take your camera everywhere and challenge yourself to make one image weekly (or daily). Create a personal project documenting your family, friends, pets, garden or how light rakes across your yard over the year (it worked for Claude Monet).

If you’re low on ideas, here are three challenges I’d like to offer to get you started.

“If you’re low on ideas, here are three challenges I’d like to offer to get you started.”

One: What do you care about? Make a list of 10 items and then narrow it down to one. For 30 days, make one image a day that illustrates the idea you care about most. You don’t need to show it to anyone; this is for you to develop a practice for image making and using the tools you own to be creative.

Two: The alphabet game. Each day, take a walk and find an image in the world that looks like a letter. Do one letter a day for 26 days, and by the end, you’ll see the letter C in the curl of laundry rolling in the dryer, the letter J in highway onramps, and the letter Z in leaf patterns on house plants. It’s a great way to start seeing the world from another angle, develop composition and framing techniques and have a completed project to inspire your next one.

Three: The DPReview photo challenges are a great place to share work, find community and have some fun. These are meant just for fun (there’s no prize other than bragging rights). DPReview members can view work, vote for winners, or host challenges. Join the fun and start sharing your work, or get inspired to try new tricks with old gear.

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