The Myth of the Miracle Camera

Laura PetersCamera, Equipment

It is a question I’m often asked during conversations with friends and strangers:

“What kind of camera should I buy?”

The answer depends a lot on what type of situations they want to capture. I’ll start by saying I did a lot of my research at Gordon Laing does an impressive job explaining, reviewing and demonstrating various cameras, lenses and concepts.

I usually assume most people aren’t interested in setting up their own home studio – they wouldn’t need to ask for my advice! But maybe they do want to improve action photos at sporting events or vacation photos. Because it ultimately is a conversation about a piece of equipment, we have to talk about expense at some point. And photography (like many interests) can be as expensive as you want to make it. The assumption I hear is usually:

“More money = better photos, right?”

Some people might even assume that anyone with an expensive camera is going to think they are an expert. It is one of the biggest myths in any activity – that better equipment guarantees better performance – and it is a photography myth as well. So I’ll share the camera purchase advice I have obtained – starting with an analogy.

The Golfer

It’s an activity known for expenses (and frustration) and is practiced both by hobbyists and professionals. Let’s say Marv, an avid weekend golfer, decides he wants to improve his game. How do you think he begins? A beginner might think to start with lessons, but Marv has been golfing for years.

“I don’t need lessons, I know how to hit a ball!”

Mistake I’ve made: Assuming current skill level is adequate

Marv visits the pro golf store at his favorite course where he tries a professional set of clubs that Tiger Woods endorses. He loves how they feel, but these are the best and have a huge price tag. So he tries the Jack Nicklaus set which has been around for a long time and has many fans, and he tries a third (and lowest-priced) set that seems only slightly better than what he’s using now.

“If I’m going to spend the money, I might as well get the best I can afford!”

So Marv leaves the store with his new set of Jack Nicklaus golf clubs. He plays the first few rounds and he is very happy. His drives seem longer, putts seem easier…he is elated with his purchase and he feels like a pro. But soon – after the newness wears off a little – he finds himself in the same sand traps again. Eventually, though he still enjoys golf and his new clubs, Marv thinks the only reason he isn’t playing like a pro is that he can’t afford the Tiger Woods clubs.

Even if Marv is naturally talented, a great set of golf clubs isn’t going to solve a problem with his swing or the wrong club choice for getting out of the rough. The new clubs may be beautifully ergonomic and refine his natural strengths, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready for the PGA Tour. It takes a lot of time and work to become a professional golfer – applying for a PGA Tour Card, going through a qualification process, winning events – and that wasn’t Marv’s goal.

Photographers of all ranges go through the same thing. I don’t always have or choose the best lens for a situation. And sometimes a new camera, lens or other accessory makes me feel like a magical photographer for a few days. Then those shots start to look familiar and comfortable.

The Real Value

For some people (myself included) it’s a surprising revelation: start with the basics. For golfers, this could mean taking lessons or getting an analysis of their swing. For photographers, this means refreshing your grasp of composition and design in various ways.

I try not to get caught up in equipment considerations before enhancing and evaluating my basic skills. A photo is great for more reasons than megapixels! For me, I seek inspiration from the world of cinema, fine arts or just taking a walk around the neighborhood in a new direction.

Pick up a book on the elements of design or attend a workshop on the basics of composition. Even if you think you know the basics, a class can help you refresh your strengths and refine the ones that have been ignored.

Think about Goals

Marv purchased an expensive set of golf clubs because he assumed that was the best way to improve his game. What I try to remember, is that most pros don’t start out with a professional-level piece of equipment. What separates weekend golfers from the pros (and serious photographers from hobbyists) is commitment to practice and not being afraid to ask for help or to fail sometimes. This is something I continue to work on!

If, like me, you want to improve your photography skills – get back to design basics, really take time to learn how your camera functions (read the manual several times), and most importantly – try new things. If you are passionate about it, this part is easy. Another great tip I received from a photography friend was to get to know my local camera store guys. (Love you, !)

The misconception is that it is or should be easy to take incredible photos, but it takes some time and a little bit of mind-bending.

Make a Purchase

I didn’t hide my delight with my new camera (Nikon D800), but I did spend a lot of time considering my camera options and evaluating cost with my current skill level. This camera doesn’t make me a better photographer, but it has improved the quality of my prints. As always, it is up to ME to get the shot. I also recently attended a masterclass that expanded my compositional awareness and opened my mind to alternative perspectives.

So if you’re looking for a camera for vacation photos, family, friends and celebrations, you could be served extremely well by many affordable cameras – including the one on your iPhone. Refresh your understanding of the basics, think about your goals and practice. And sometimes, you may want to bring in a professional.