Buy Yourself Something New

Jeju_5164-2xDon’t spend all your money on new equipment before you master your old stuff. Spend your extra milk money on a ticket to somewhere you’ve never been before. Use your old gear in a new way; don’t worry about using new gear until you know what you’ll be using it for.

I shot a wedding in Canada last weekend and ran into a very nice young fellow who was somewhat familiar with my work. As a photography enthusiast himself this young fellow was quite interested in the gear I shoot with and we got to talking about equipment. This young fellow has himself a very nice digital SLR, an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens and a 50mm f/1.8 prime. He asked me what he should buy next. I told him he should buy a plane ticket.

He thought I was kidding at first. It took some convincing for him to realize that I wasn’t.

I get this question often and I usually offer some variation of the response above. You can always buy new gear; new stuff comes on the market every single day. None of it alone makes you a better photographer. For that, you need experience. For that, you need to go somewhere and see something. What you put in front of your lens is more important than the lens you put in front of your face.

This holds true for any photography enthusiast but is exceptionally true when it comes to amateurs. Many amateurs – or folks just getting into photography – don’t know what they like to shoot. Most like to shoot a little bit of everything. A little macro here, some portraits there, a landscape or two for good measure and they’re having fun. With a digital SLR body, a kit lens and one quick prime to shoot in low light you have more than enough photographic firepower at your disposal to craft stunning images – just like the guy I met at the wedding. How do you know you should buy something new? How do you know you’ll use it a month from now?

Only when you start to refine your craft should you look at expanding your kit. If you outgrow the kit lens and the prime and want to start shooting portraits with razor-thin depth of field, you might start looking at an 85mm f/1.4 prime lens. If you get into sports and want to capture action the way you see it then perhaps you should break the bank on a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. Say you find that travel photography is your passion – a wide and fast 16-35mm f/2.8 might have to go on your Christmas wish list. But if you are a budding photographer just starting to get your feet wet? Spend your hard-earned money on a trip to an exotic destination and shoot with what you’ve got. I don’t know of a better way to find out exactly what it is you want to shoot. You certainly can’t do that browsing the goods at Best Buy.

I meet a lot of photographers with very extensive kits and very weak portfolios. I knew photographers in South Korea who couldn’t go on vacation during the summer because they had spent all of their money on new camera equipment. What good does that do you? I’d rather ride off into a Mongolian sunset with a point-and-shoot compact in my pocket than sit on the sofa brushing the dust off my new $3,500 lens. Pack what you’ve already got and go somewhere you’ve never been.

Buy more experience.

In 2008 I went on my first serious photography tour with my friend Len. Len and I had been into the photography game for about six months and we had comparable kits; consumer DSLRs, kit lenses, one fast prime and a crummy super zoom (that I still have and curse at from time to time). A few weeks prior to booking the trip I remember going to our local camera shop and thinking that I could buy a new lens – I had my eye on a nifty 70-200mm f/2.8 beauty at the time – and cut short the trip by a week or go full bore on this photographic odyssey. In the end common sense won out; Len challenged me to try and earn enough money by selling images taken on our trip to buy the big lens later.

I’m glad I didn’t buy that lens that day. I didn’t know enough about the equipment I did have to warrant purchasing something new. I wasn’t good enough at the time to see any benefit from something new. That lens would have been just one more thing to carry around with me. So, I went to work on honing my craft and getting more out of the equipment I already had at my disposal. I became a better photographer by studying and shooting and experiencing – I upgraded my skillset and not my gear. Since then I’ve spent a lot of time buying experiences and not much time at all buying equipment. I never did go back to buy that 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. I found out I didn’t really need it after all.

Consider this; while the allure of new gear is undeniably strong, the lure of the road, once you’ve been out on it, is stronger. Spend more time as a photographer and less as a consumer and you’ll be better for it.

So, to my new friend in Canada; I hope that answers your question. See you on the road.

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7 thoughts on “Buy Yourself Something New

  1. Flash,

    Great post! I think this is so important for creative thinkers, more importantly for photographers. Travel is the best way to open your eyes and take notice of things you ordinarily overlook. I always like to say travel is similar to being born again; you see sights for the first time, hear foreign noises you could imagine, and smell things indescribable to your own palette. I myself have very modest digs, and I feel the NIKON FE I bought for 100$ suits me much better than my D90. Anyway, great post, your words help fuel my ever growing sensational appetite to travel!!

    • Cheers, pal. Much appreciated. Glad to hear that you still love being on the road after all the moving around you’ve done!

  2. This couldn’t have hit home more if I wrote it myself. Like I mentioned to you on Flickr, I am heading to Vietnam on Friday and was considering adding a SWA lens to my relatively thin arsenal of lenses (35 F2, 50 f1.8 and 85 f1.8). I might still do it but you have given me something to think about for sure. Cheers!

    • That is the perfect kit to travel and is similar to what I’ve taken on many, many trips (save for swapping out the 85 for a 105). If you like to shoot wide and want to shoot wide another lens might be a great addition, especially if you’re shooting on a cropped sensor. The Tokina 11-16 2.8 is excellent and smaller than any Nikon UWA and the new Tokina 10-24 has a really nice range.

  3. Hello Flash!

    Very inspiring blog and impressive photos! I just started with photography last year and I love wasting my time on this blog or your flickr-stream 😉

    Later this year i’ll be heading to India, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand for more than 4 months and was wondering, if it is more useful to take an ultra-wide angle lens or a telephoto with me…?

    My standard-zoom is the 18-105 kit lens, which i like quite much.. Not the best glass, but ok to begin i think. So 105mm is quite a lot and i’m not sure if i need to carry another telphoto-lens with me.. (i’ve got a 55-200 VRII and i hardly use it).

    I’m not planning some major wildlife-shooting… and I know, that i prefer shooting architecture, street and landscape.

    So would it be more useful to invest in a ultra-wide angle lens (the tokina 12-24 seems quite interesting) or is a “real” tele-lens necessary for traveling?
    I don’t want to carry around more than 3 lenses and my 18-105 and my 35 f/1.8 are indispensable…

    Thanks a lot in advance and carry on with your great work!

    Greetings from Salzburg, Austria

    Stephan

    • Hello Stephan,

      First off, thank you for checking in. I’m glad you enjoy the blog and the images – keep on wasting your time. Ha!

      At any rate, it’s tough to answer your question; as I’ve written in the past, it’s you who needs to decide what you want to shoot. Do you want to get up close and person with your subjects, or do you want to utilize compression with a long tele to bring your subjects and your backgrounds closer to you? It all depends on what you want to shoot – and what you intend to carry. Personally, I carry both of these lenses with me, but I carry too much stuff in general.

      The whole point of my blog post here is about mastering what you’ve got – so take the lenses you already have and go make some beautiful images with them. It seems to me like you’ve already answered your own questions by what you’ve written, and you should be fine. Yeah, that Tokina is a cool lens and would be a great addition to your kit… IF you use it.

      If I took three lenses, and only three lenses into the field, they would be:
      85mm f/1.4
      24mm f/1.4
      300mm f/4 w/ tele converter
      on a full-frame camera.

      With your kit, you’ve got all these lengths covered!
      Good luck out there, and enjoy your trip!

      • thanks a lot for answering, Flash… yes i’ve been already sure that i’ll buy this Tokina lens, but after reading your post i wasn’t sure at all 😉

        When you’re on a budget long-term trip, having 700$ more or less can make a big difference.. similar to your situation in 2008 with the 70-200 2.8 🙂
        so i think, 18mm is enough at the short end to shoot most of the situations…

        Thanks again and best wishes from Europe..

        Stephan

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